Who do we want to be when we grow up? Do we even want to grow up? These are important questions residents of Fort Myers Beach must face sooner rather than later.
At the ripe old age of 20 years, our town is struggling with an identity crisis.
Are we a beautiful tourism destination, offering an idyllic combination of sun, sand and fun? Or are we an isolated fishing village with no need for tourists? Or something in between?
And who gets to weigh in on the decision?
All very big questions facing those who love our island.
Just a few years ago, I was struck by how inclusive our community was. Everyone was welcome here. Your bank account didn’t matter, nor did your job, your background or what you used to do or where you used to live. We were one community embracing our economic and geographic diversity.
We’re losing that. Oh, some of it is still here, but it’s fading. I hear it in the voices of new residents, those considering moving here and those who have left. If you don’t converse with many in those categories, you may not hear it. I hear it in the voices of entrepreneurs who want to start or move a business here. I hear it in the voices of current business owners ready to throw in the towel and take their business and jobs elsewhere. I see it in the number of former council members who have moved off the island.
Add all those voices together and the chorus is clear and getting louder – we have a problem.
Not that long ago, our inclusiveness extended to Town Council. I watched seasonal residents speak and those who worked on island, property owners who lived elsewhere, tourists and new residents. Their voices mattered. That inclusiveness was a visible sign of the welcoming attitude that our island embraced and council led the way.
Today, not so much.
Now, most every public comment speaker begins with a testimonial as to how long they’ve lived here, as if they’ve learned that those with the most longevity have more rights, more power, more sway with this council.
Now imagine you’ve lived here 2-3 years and want to share an idea or comment. Are you going to stand up and say you’ve been a resident for 2 years? Unlikely.
You don’t have to live here very long before you learn that the first qualifier sought if there’s any disagreement is, “How long have they lived here?”
I recognize and appreciate the wisdom of those who have been Islanders for decades. I join many others in envying them their long experience here. They bring a valued historical view to the table.
But as a community, we should all have a seat at that table. Whether you have lived here for two years or twenty or fifty, each one of us has the same right to weigh in on community decisions. Business owners, seasonal residents, property owners, renters – they all have a different viewpoint and we are stronger when all viewpoints are valued.
I hear repeatedly concerns that our council majority is focused only on full time residents and is anti-business and that trickles down to staff that wants to please council. Permits take forever and are bounced back with one change after another required. A council member shows up on a work site with a measuring tape. It isn’t like this in other small communities.
We have a council member referring to legitimate local business owners as greedy vultures prostituting our island. In a Town Council meeting.
That charming comment reflects not just on the speaker, but on our entire Town. Is this the image we want for our Town?
We’ve begun some essential infrastructure improvements. Right now, the mess that is Estero Blvd. is temporary and will result in a beautiful new road and new water and sewer systems – all good things.
When it’s done, we’ll be left with a blighted downtown area that will look all the worse due to the nice new road and a council whose majority seems ready to take us backward rather than forward.
Those that formed our town and crafted the original town documents did a fine job but those documents were not written in stone on the mountaintop. Current residents have the right to decide their vision of our town’s future. It’s possible to build on the past while moving forward, but only if all Islanders have a voice and participate.
In March 2017, voters will choose a majority of seats on Town Council. If residents are serious about changing the direction of our Town, a few good people need to step up and run for council.
Our town really needs to decide whether we’re going to remain the conflicted adolescent we are now, or move toward maturity. We have a chance to control our own destiny. Will we take it?