From the Editor: Cape Coral Crusader
Carolyn Conant makes Cape Coral better with bike pathways and greenery.
It’s hard to say no to Carolyn Conant … and make it stick. This native of Hammond, Indiana, isn’t the kind to raise her voice or stamp her feet, but, boy, does she come at you with evidence and resolve. And because she does, Cape Coral has a prettier look (see those landscaped medians) and is fast becoming the place to bike in Southwest Florida. Of her Bike Ped project, Carolyn says, “We see Cape Coral as a hidden gem. We’re less congested and— beyond the area’s beaches and golf courses—we’re wanting to put the city on the map as a biking paradise.”
She warmed up for her 19 years as a Cape Coral resident/ volunteer crusader by working her way through Indiana University (Gary) and a Master of Arts in urban studies at the University of Chicago. All along, Carolyn demonstrated a gift for research, administration and project leadership at places like Tulane University and Carnegie Mellon and Turner Corporation (the huge construction company that is building the Hertz headquarters here in Estero). And it was at Turner, while loving her assignment estimating the cost of construction jobs, that she also fell in love with Chief Operating Officer Herb Conant. Though an award-winning employee, she says, “I felt it was right to leave the company after getting involved with Herb,” who subsequently became Turner’s CEO. They married in 1987 and were together until his passing in 2013.
Beauty and the Power of Persuasion
Now about those persuasive powers and the Cape Coral she cares so deeply for: “I wanted to beautify the area with landscape projects on the medians of the main arteries. I and some very talented colleagues formed GreensCape, a nonprofit, to raise money and do the design. We partnered with the city. I assisted in writing the contracts and getting the bids. We had to work with Lee County, and their people wanted all the trees in the middle—like a fence. We had planned for islands of trees and shrubs interspersed with grassy areas. I said, ‘No, we’d have to give the money back.’ I put together some legal and financial details that helped with government employees—and the Lee people gave in. We started over and they were on my side then. We moved fast and within a year had a couple of medians done. All sides loved this.” Then there was talk about a matching grant. Carolyn proposed Lee County provide matching funding, but never anticipated it would add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. And, in the end, Lee was happy to do so for this project. There are now 5 miles of beautified medians and lots of smiling faces.
Biking Picks Up Speed
Ah, the piece de resistance for Cape Coral—the budding capital of biking in Southwest Florida. Carolyn has been at it for the past year and a half, building the Cape Coral Bike Ped team (including savvy cyclists, fundraisers, graphic artists, marketing experts, dedicated residents and more) and implementing the plan. The mission is to get locals and visitors out for some exercise while savoring the area’s natural beauty, to provide a safe and green means of transportation, and to bring valuable business to the area (research maven Carolyn points to a national study documenting the $133 billion a year the biking industry adds to the U.S. economy).
“I’m amazed we’ve come so far, so fast,” Carolyn says. Here are the numbers within the city: 110 miles of bike lanes, 9 miles of bike paths, 3.75 miles of multi-use paths, 189 sidewalk miles (including state and county roads) and 90 miles of signed bike routes completed by the end of 2014. The signage, of course, is critical, and Carolyn’s mastery of detail got city and state officials through their anxiety of meeting all the legal requirements. The green and white traffic control signs tell cyclists which route they’re on, where to turn to stay on a route or go onto another route. Other safety and information signs appear along the routes. Blue and white Adopt-a-Route signs raise money through sponsors and provide route information for riders as well.
After all this, does Carolyn get out for a bike ride herself? “I ride casually,” she says, “maybe 5 or 10 miles. I’ll go up to the ice cream store and back.” Just desserts indeed for the person helping drive her beloved city into the fast lane.