“We’ve Come A Long Way, Baby!”
In Fall 2016, to commemorate the first anniversary of the opening of the Mound House to the public, the Town of Fort Myers Beach hosted a two-part long-range planning program for the historic and cultural institution. On Monday, January 14, the Town hosted a similar session for the second jewel in its Cultural Resources Division for Newton Beach Park at 4650 Estero Boulevard. Lorna Kibbey of Leadership Solutions was the facilitator, as she was for the Mound House, guiding 33 participants that at various points during the 6-hour day broke into 6 smaller work groups.
Newton Beach Park features the Seven Seas Cottage formerly owned by late island resident Jim Newton, who gained notoriety through his book, “Uncommon Friends,” about his relationships with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Charles Lindbergh and Dr. Alexis Carrel. The Seven Seas Cottage, built in 1953, was a major focus in the life of Newton and his wife, Ellie, where they lived, worked and entertained their influential friends from around the world. Because of this significant history, the Town secured a Florida Community Trust Grant to help finance its $2.3-million purchase in 2003, with the site becoming the first Town-owned public park in 2010. In addition to the Seven Seas Cottage and beach frontage, it has a tiki hut, paid parking, nature and educational programs, recreational opportunities and historic and environmental signage, among other amenities.
“We are excited to host this planning session, a little over 2 years since we did so for the Mound House,” said Alison Giesen, Director of Cultural Resources for the Town and Mound House Director. “I have driven past Newton Park a hundred times, yet never stopped there until recently,” added Kibbey. “It is lovely and I was amazed at the number of people there, and it was great to see a man and his child reading all the interpretive signage. The public restroom was nice and clean and the beach beautiful, and I enjoyed my lunch under the tiki hut, including calling relatives in Ohio to tell them I had to work on the beach!”
Lorna then asked each participant why Newton Beach Park was important to them. Sue Carter hosts yoga classes there, calling it a great location for educational activities. Ellen Vaughn stops there for lunch after her Mound House docent shifts, saying it is beautiful and a community treasure. Gayle Crabtree-Pergoli, who leads the Tuesday morning nature walks, knows the public enjoys the site but feel it is badly underutilized. Pastor Ivan Corbin of United Methodist Church wants to ensure the future of Newton Beach Park, to preserve this important piece of Fort Myers Beach history. Council member Anita Cereceda was struck by the enthusiasm in the room that was palpable, “as that is what makes our world go round!” Ceel Spuhler remembered when Newton Beach Park was a contentious community issue, when its name alone guaranteed controversy, and is grateful for the valued resource it is today. Betty Simpson completely agreed with Ceel, saying, “We’ve come a long way, baby!”
Mission & Vision
Lorna led the participants through discussions with the entire room as well in small groups, to compose the Newton Beach Park Mission and Vision Statements. The Mission Statement ultimately became, “Newton Beach Park is an educational and recreational experience for all,” with the Vision Statement, “to provide an oasis for recreation and education.”
She next helped participants compose a list of measurable objectives, to determine if Newton Beach Park is attaining the community’s goals: the property meets the Town’s policies and goals as listed in its Comprehensive Plan; it brings a wide-spread awareness to visitors, volunteers and financial support; its educational and recreational programming abundantly encourages formal and informal return visits; the cottage and property’s aesthetics and functionality are conducive to educational and recreational experiences; it provides environmental education that cultivates awareness and stewardship; and the property is safe and secure. “These capture the essence of what we want to achieve,” said Lorna, “with Alison having the final say on the actual wording.”
When the group examined Newton Beach Park’s long-term financial viability, Vice Mayor Joanne Shamp, who participated along with Council members Bruce Butcher and Cereceda, stated, “This property is unique in that the Town’s Comprehensive Plan states that Fort Myers Beach will have this resource, making it safe from any actions any future Town Council may take, as it meets the goals and objectives of our municipality, so that statute provides the Town’s commitment.”
Cereceda added that when Newton Beach Park preservation efforts began in 2003, “it was a sticky wicket, but a good lesson to learn as a Town. When I think of our community now versus 15 years ago, we would all be out in the middle of the night to save this treasure and I bet you a million dollars we would save this little cottage!” “That $2.3 million was a lot of money,” said Shamp, “but we are thrilled we have Newton Beach Park today!” Of that amount, the Town paid $310,000; Lee County $969,000; and the Florida Community Trust the balance.
What’s in a Name?
The purchase price discussion brought Bill Grace back to the sensitive issue Ceel Spuhler and Betty Simpson alluded to earlier. “Many of us disagreed with naming the site after the Newtons, as they contributed nothing and provided no financial support nor any donation. They called the cottage ‘Seven Seas’ and many thought that an appropriate title. On top of that, there is a negative connotation to Jim Newton because many of his friends wore Nazi medals and is that what you want associated with our community? That is why we wanted another name. The issue wasn’t, ‘Why would you name it Newton Park?’ The better question was, ‘Why would you not?’”
Lorna noted that in the pre-planning questionnaire provided to participants, 75% were against a name change. Cereceda said, “I am not a fan of politically-correct things, and I said in the survey I would not change the name, but I changed my mind today. I would change it because ‘Seven Seas Park’ has an allure Newton Park does not – is it named after a Fig Newton? ‘Seven Seas Park’ sounds like someplace I would want to visit.” “Put that into our goals,” said Alison, “to re-examine that.”
Lorna described the next steps: “I will compile all the raw data we assembled today, so it makes sense for Alison, then we will summarize everything for you when we meet again here in Town Hall on Saturday, February 2, at 9 a.m. I think you guys did an awesome job and I am so proud of you, as we have the first Newton Beach Park Mission and Vision Statements ever, so you should feel good about your success! We have something here we want to preserve because it is important to us and we want it to remain viable into our future.” “After February 2, this becomes an action plan,” added Alison. “We then bring that before Town Council for approval and begin to move forward with it, so I am super excited to accomplish this!”
By Gary Mooney