From the Editor: Bonita Springs Eternal
Along with Mayor Ben Nelson
Sitting between posh Naples and bustling Fort Myers, a more laid back Bonita Springs maybe doesn’t command the attention and respect it might. But a while back, attention was paid—and it brought a howl from town fathers.
The Huffington Post had Bonita on a list of “America’s Ghost Towns” allegedly devastated by the economic crisis and ran an aerial shot to prove it. Mayor Ben Nelson, who’s lived in Bonita all his life, dismissed the charges at the time with facts and figures. And in a recent conversation, he called the Huffington designation “ridiculous” and “inaccurate” and added, “The picture looks as if it’s Southern Pines and the reason you see no cars is that they’re required to be under car ports. Thats why the photo appears that way.”
As with the town he loves, Ben Nelson’s appearance can be deceiving, too. He’s seen around a lot in his work clothes and since he’s in the construction business—he has owned and operated a maritime construction company for 30 years—that often means he’s in shorts and sandals. Says Ben, “I can’t tell you how many times a month people say, ‘You’re the mayor?’—with some serious disbelief—when they find out who I am.”
Well, yes, he is. And he’s brought a businessman’s savvy to steering the economic ship through turbulent times. He deserves credit, says keen political observer Jacke McCurdy, for a leadership role in getting local municipalities and the Lee and Collier county governments to discuss issues affecting them all. One of the results was putting in an efficient bus service from Fort Myers into Collier, making it a lot easier for people to get to their jobs. With wife Lori, Ben even showed the way to boost the dining scene in Bonita by creating the charming, popular, well-reviewed Survey Café out of a classic old house in town. He’s quick to cite the Gulf access, the fascinating history and physical beauty of his town, but he’s most eloquent about a special spirit he perceives.
“When I was a kid,” says 58-year-old Ben, “you’d look out at Old 41 and would rarely see a car on the road. There weren’t many of us, but we really banded together and helped each other out. And as folks came to town, that same spirit welcomed them to the area and it became contagious as Bonita Springs grew. So today, I’m so proud of all the volunteers we have in Bonita, doing stuff to make the place better and taking no pay for it.”
Pressed about special moments in his political job, he says, sure, they’ve passed a lot of good legislation to make life better here, but, “I particularly remember the times helping individuals out. I got a call once from a man very disturbed about the criminal element living next door. We had recently added some community police officers, and I immediately rang them up. Within five minutes they were in that man’s neighborhood taking care of the problem. He got right on the phone to me to say he never thought calling a politician would get such swift and effective action. And, most importantly, he said he wanted to be a volunteer in a town like this.”
It all began for the Nelsons when Ben’s grandfather from the state of Washington took notice of a deal he couldn’t refuse: free land in Florida (“It was actually a swamp,” says Ben) and two cows (“which, says Ben, “you were not allowed to kill”). So grandpa rode his horse all the way to Florida, stopping off in Kentucky to pick up the mail-order bride he had contracted for. The rest is Nelson history here. Ben’s dad had a hardware store and that’s where he picked up his construction skills. As a youngster, Ben loved nothing more than running in the woods with his BB gun. His sister didn’t share the vibe for Southwest Florida. “She hated when we went shopping in Naples,” Ben says, “because she and I had to sit in the back of a dump truck, the only transportation we had. She grew up, became a stewardess and only comes back here to visit the family
Ben became the Bonita booster as businessman, politician and goodwill ambassador. Back before the holidays, he was enthusing over a party in the park with fake snow flying and sleds and stuff and how maybe 10,000 people joined the fun. “Look at all those ghosts,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. Bonita rocks.