Sands of Time, Historic Beach Shopping Plazas

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Santini Marina and Sea Grape

If Florida is the original land of boom and bust, then Fort Myers Beach should be dizzy from riding historic cycles of subsistence fishing, tourism, construction, roadwork, hurricanes, financial crises and eco-disasters.

Businesses come and go in any tourist-dependent region: new restaurants are the rage until customers grab onto the next food trend, clothing stores wither if they can’t keep pace with changing fashions, and service stores are only as good as their merchandise and staff.

What’s the secret of two local shopping plazas that have each weathered a few decades on the island with scarcely a vacancy? If we had that answer we would not be in journalism but rather planning a multi-million-dollar Initial Public Offering or franchising a sure bet.

The owners, managers and businesses of Santini Marina Plaza and Sea Grape Plaza have a winning formula – both planned and serendipitous – that we explore in this Sands of Time column.

Disclaimer: As a now 10-year resident and 50-plus-year visitor to Fort Myers Beach, this author has patronized many businesses in both plazas at some point, and some that came before.

Santini Marina Plaza

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Aerial photo of the site of Santini Plaza under construction in 1973. Photo courtesy of the Estero Island Historic Society.

The largest, most diverse shopping plaza on the island began as Villa Santini Plaza, built by southwest Florida pioneer Leonard Santini in the early 1970s to serve residents of his Leonardo Arms – the island’s first multi-unit condominium on the largely unpopulated southern third of the island.

In 1942, Santini had bought nearly the entire southern half of Estero Island from the defunct, cult-like Koreshan Unity for $40,000. His detractors called it “Santini’s Folly” and “The Sandspit.” Who’s laughing now, with all that land valued in untold millions?

Villa Santini Plaza’s anchor attraction was a small movie theater (where Sandbar Restaurant is now located), called the Jerry Lewis Theater at first, then Cobb’s Theater. Among the early businesses were ramshackle Scotty’s Marina in the back – founded in 1958 – and a branch of Naples Federal Savings and Loan Association. A smattering of eateries included Ernie’s and Pizzas and Cream.

Al Durrett, owner of the plaza since 1998, says that in earlier years Scotty’s Marina was a fish camp. Rental cottages were available to fishermen who flew private planes down and landed on a small airstrip near where Lenell Street currently forms the northern border of the plaza. They could charter boats and pass a few pleasant days fishing on Estero Bay or the Gulf of Mexico.

This writer recalls a dolphin pen at Scotty’s Marina in the late 1960s. The dolphins weren’t captive; they swam in and out with the tides, attracted by fish Scotty fed them. For a small price, visitors could enter the pen, swim with the dolphins for a few minutes and even pet them. Scotty’s later became Fish Tale Marina.

When Al Durrett purchased and renamed Santini Marina Plaza, he promptly spent over $3 million to upgrade facilities and add landscaping. “We put in 20-foot palm trees that are now over 40 feet tall,” Al recalls.

Business tenants in Al’s first two ownership decades included Mr. Pants – with its own tailor – gift shop Discovery Bay, Tic Tac Toe children’s clothing, The Alley Cats restaurant (now Skye’s) and Greco’s, now The Italian Deli. A Hallmark card shop and stationery store, Lion’s Den clothier, the Island Girl arts and gift gallery, and Fiddler’s Grocery Store (current location of South Beach Grille) have come and gone.

Nesbit Realty is the longest-term tenant, while Nicola’s Liquors was sold after 25 years to become Skipper’s Liquors. Bank of America once had a small branch office in the plaza; when it closed, many islanders – especially on the south end – were dismayed at the prospect of having to do off-island banking (BB&T now has a branch one mile north and Wells Fargo is near the island’s north end).

Annette’s Book Nook is one of the original tenants. Owned for many years by Phyllis and Tom Lumley – whose son Scotty has worked for 20 years cleaning up the plaza and greeting visitors from his large tricycle – the store is now owned by Annette Stillson.

Annette and her late husband Elmer once owned the recently-closed Beach & Bubbles Laundromat (a loss lamented by area residents, businesses and hotels). “It was an open-air laundromat with no air conditioning when we bought it 25 or 30 years ago,” Annette recalls. “It had a well out back and we used well-water to do the laundry.”

With seven dining establishments – from upscale South Beach Grille and deluxe Fish Tale Waterfront Dining to Truly Scrumptious sandwich/treats shop and Subway – competition hasn’t dimmed any of the restaurant success, according to Al Durrett.

The plaza’s several apparel and gift stores are complemented by other services: a specialty shoe store, interior design shop, Bob’s Qwik Pack & Ship, a post office in Gifts by the Sea, physical therapy center, medical center, nail salon, hair salon, hardware store and self-storage facility.

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Photo or Leonard Santini and an unidentified woman at the future location of Villa Santini/Santini Marina Plaza. Photo courtesy of Fran Santini.

Through all the storms this area has weathered – climatic, ecological and economic – Santini Marina Plaza has never had a vacant space for more than a short period. The now-empty laundromat will soon be home to John R. Wood Realtors.

To give patrons new reasons to keep returning, the plaza offers a seasonal Fresh Market on Tuesdays and Thursdays, concerts in the marina’s Propeller Lounge, and an opportunity for the FMB Little League to collect parking donations during the International Sand Sculpting Festival each November.

Sea Grape Plaza

Four miles north on the island is another long-standing plaza with two tenants that go back 30+ years. Sea Grape Plaza’s origins are lost in the sands of time, but Manager Bob Beasley believes it was launched by three local realtors – including James D. Newton – as the Sea Grape General Partnership. Beasley knows it was sold in February 1978 to R.W. Palmer from Philadelphia, PA. In 1995 Mr. Palmer sold the plaza to Dr. Hans Helmut Killinger from Hamburg, Germany, who transferred ownership to his son, Olav Robert Killinger, in January 2018.

Long-distance ownership has been no hardship, according to several business tenants, thanks to diligent management by Bob Beasley, also a local realtor.

“I’ve always loved Sea Grape Plaza,” says Ollie Curran, owner of Ollie’s Hair Etc. “I’ve been here 31 years so I’m the only original business owner left.” The Pancake House (recently under new ownership) also goes back at least three decades.

“People are friendly here,” adds Ollie. “It always has a good vibe. When I started here, we had the Sherwin-Williams paint store, a linens store, Jeannine’s clothing shop, an accountant and a little church consignment store. Perky’s Pizza was a popular spot for several years.”

Distinctive Rentals is another long-term tenant, and Santini Floral is enjoying its fourth year in Sea Grape Plaza. Recent additions include Rachel Nails salon and Paradise Tattoo, replacing a coffee shop that opened in 2017 with good “buzz” but folded within a year.

Seasonal cycles are a challenge, say business owners. Summer 2018 was especially difficult. The horrendous red tide that invaded our shores in July – and finally abated in late September – crashed summer revenues island-wide. Some businesses weren’t sure they would survive, and a few didn’t.

The owners of The Charros Brothers Mexican restaurant in Sea Grape Plaza teetered on the brink. Finally, the Chamber of Commerce launched “Tip the Bill,” urging restaurant patrons to tip the entire amount of their tab, and as visitors trickled back, many did just that.

The Charros Brothers has been a popular addition since 2014, in a location that saw several restaurants fold within a year. Owned by the Avina-Flores family (Dennis, Araceli and their son Christian), Charros offers home-made Mexican food with authentic specialties from many of Mexico’s 31 states. Familiar Tex-Mex foods are joined by unique dishes from Dennis’s native Veracruz and beyond.

Dennis, a chef for 20 years, shops early every morning for fresh ingredients and updates the menus twice a year. “We love our customers and we love Fort Myers Beach,” he says. The restaurant has built a loyal clientele despite a difficult few years racked by competition, road construction, Hurricane Irma and red tide.

Resilience, Location and Luck

The common success factors of Santini Marina and Sea Grape Plazas over the decades include good management, cleanliness, a friendly attitude and location. Tucked off Estero Boulevard, Sea Grape has certainly been affected by years-long roadwork, but less so than north-end businesses that stand right on that road.

Santini’s enjoys a buffer with its large acreage fronting the boulevard, though it too will feel some pain when the road infrastructure juggernaut grinds its way along. Continued attractions and festivals remind locals and visitors why a drive to the southern end is worthwhile.

Readers are invited to share their favorite Island memories with The Island Sand Paper.

 

By Janet Sailian
janetsailian@gmail.com