Best proof that SWFL is culturally relevant: In a word, Marcus Jansen (Organic Illusions at left). The surrealist painter is off rocking the art world in his first solo museum tour. And to think he works out of a little, barely marked building outside of downtown Fort Myers. Speaking of downtown, we’re patting the Fort Myers City Council on the back for standing up to public outcry over a sculpture by Colombian artist Edgardo Carmona whose works depict ordinary life in his homeland. The exhibit features 22 whimsical and noncontroversial statues—and one “scandalous” piece showing a dog and his owner relieving themselves. Gasp! OK, so it’s not the most highbrow of topics, but it sure was the talk of the town—and isn’t that the point of art? Finally, congratulations to Artis—Naples for three major donations this past year: a $15 million gift from Naples couple Kimberly K. Querrey and Louis A. Simpson, the biggest single donation in the organization’s history; a multimillion-dollar collection gifted by Naples’ Paul and Charlotte Corddry; and a $10 million endowment to permanently fund the music director position from Sharon and Timothy Ubben, also of Naples. If that’s not an endorsement of the arts in this area, we don’t know what is.
Best detective work: The Lee County Sheriff’s Office’s swift investigation and arrests in the Teresa Sievers murder case. It helped that the alleged hitman left a trail of evidence stretching from Missouri to Bonita Springs, but we’ll give kudos regardless. Ditto to the Collier County Sheriff’s Office for busting a major drug ring last fall, netting $2.6 million worth of heroin and 17 bad guys.
Best student success: Taste of Immokalee has landed its salsas, spices and sauces in 18 Publix locations in Collier County. The benefit corporation, led by high school students from the Immokalee community with guidance from One by One Leadership Foundation, gives its students a taste of all aspects of running a business—from recipe development to marketing and more. That’s some A+ achievement since the project’s inception in 2013.
Best legacies: Berne Davis “The First Lady of Fort Myers” died this March at 102 and was vibrant to the end. She left us everything from beautiful gardens to scholarship funds to the cultural heart of downtown, the Sidney & Berne Davis Arts Center. Veronica Shoemaker of Fort Myers, who passed at 86, helped to shatter segregation and gave the city’s African-Americans a voice as the first black member of city council. Olga Hirshhorn, art collector and museum benefactor, died last October at 95. Her legacy lives on; Hirshhorn donated 223 works to The Baker Museum at Artis—Naples in 2013. Internet sensation Ozzie the Eagle perished last October from injuries sustained in a brawl with another bird. Ozzie and his mate, Harriet, lived on the property of Dick Pritchett Real Estate in North Fort Myers where an Eagle Cam garnered some 40 million views from around the world.
Best use of spare change: Jay and Patty Baker donated $15 million to the downtown NCH location and $10 million to Gulfshore Playhouse.
Best comebacks: Go Bucs! After 18 years of dark scoreboards and empty locker rooms, Florida SouthWestern State College athletics re-emerged this year, fielding baseball and softball teams. Hoops returns next season in the new, 3,300-seat Suncoast Credit Unit Arena under construction at its flagship Fort Myers campus. After a massive, $2.4 million rehabilitation, the historic Naples Pier reopened last November, to the delight of full-timers, part-timers and tourists alike.
Best mass wedding: Paul Johnson and Shelly Osterhout (right) were married Oct. 10 at the Bell Tower Shops. And they invited everyone. The concept made national news. In the end, more than 200 strangers came to the open-air reception.
Best ways to scare off tourists: Dang, we tried hard this year. The efforts started in October with the tragic Zombicon shooting. Case still unsolved. We started ripping up Estero Boulevard, the only major road on Fort Myers Beach, which was already a nightmare (yes, we know, we know, it’s for the town’s long-term good). And then we witnessed the fresh water from Lake Okeechobee gush down the Caloosahatchee and into the Gulf, chasing off fish and staining the water brown.
Best SWFL fodder for late-night comedians: Wrinkles the Clown. This creeper goes around in a white mask and polka-dotted jumpsuit and has been scaring the crud out of locals since 2014. He’s caught the attention of everyone from The Washington Post to Jimmy Fallon (and a shout-out to Naples Daily News for its highly entertaining article in February). And then there’s pickleball. This hot, new sport with the silly name just held its national championship right here at the East Naples Community Park. What a claim to fame!
Best signs of community spirit: Southwest Florida is known for its generosity, and the past year has seen an outpouring of civic good. Angela Melvin, a Fort Myers resident who lost her mother in a car crash when she was 10, opened Valerie’s House, an organization where other children and their surviving parents can find long-term support in their grief. It is named, naturally, in honor of her mother. Quality Life Center director Abdul’Haq Muhammed spearheaded Pennies for Community Progress, a community-wide effort to attack the poverty-related issues in Lee County’s most troubled neighborhoods.
Best best-sellers: Two authors who call Southwest Florida home scored again. Pulitzer Prize winner and part-time Naples resident David McCullough published a chart-topping book on the Wright Brothers. Cape Coral resident Jeff Lindsay moved on from his wildly successful Dexter series with Red Tide, a thriller set in the Keys.
Best changes of scenery: The Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida has gone from long-time dream to steel shell to seven-story tower looming over the campus of HealthPark Medical Center in Fort Myers. The opening is still about a year away, but we’re getting excited as the building takes shape … We love the idea of walkable communities (mostly because we hate the traffic), and Naples Square promises to be one of those trendy live/walk/work kinds of places. It’s being built at the corner of Fifth Avenue North and Goodlette-Frank Road and will connect Fifth Avenue with Bayfront. The first building is done … This final item probably falls under “most dramatic” rather than “best”—the teardown of that old replica Spanish galleon. Once a restaurant, the building has been vacant for years, but kept turning the heads of drivers on U.S. 41. Soon to replace it: a senior residential community.
Best survival skills: We’re awarding this to a pair of community matriarchs, Myra Daniels, 90, and Doris Reynolds, 91. Daniels is best known in the world of the arts: she founded the Naples Philharmonic, now Artis—Naples. Reynolds is a self-made woman who chose Naples as her home and celebrated it for years in her Naples Daily News columns. Civic engagement and a whole lot of spunk appear to be the recipe for longevity.
Best start-up success: Dino Lingo started as an idea about six years ago in the head of Fort Myers’ Serdar Acar. Like a kid-friendly Rosetta Stone, it now produces instructional software for 40 different languages. Sales topped $600,000 within the first four years.
Best way to disrupt the natives: One, mess with our environment. Witness the outcry over legislation that would have regulated the practice of fracking (too industry-friendly, critics contended) and renewed pressure on lawmakers to hasten Everglades restoration after Lake Okeechobee discharges (again) tarnished Lee County beaches. And two, mess with our identity. Fort Myers Beach residents are biting their nails over Grand Resorts—Fort Myers Beach, a proposed hotel and retail megadevelopment, which will usher their kitschy, quirky, family-friendly town into the 21st century. But do they really want to be there? Naples residents, likewise, are anxious over plans to transform their downtown with condos and new retail buildings. Developer Phil McCabe has called the project a “game changer.” Others, though, love their Fifth Avenue just the way it is.
Best newcomers: Welcome, Village of Estero, after that long journey to incorporation. We noticed you wasted no time installing your elected leaders and beginning the hard work of self-governance—and your residents, too, didn’t skip a beat in waging war against the county over the proposed Corkscrew Farms development on Corkscrew Road … A pair of special sisters relocated to Southwest Florida in January—9-year-old cheetahs who were born in captivity at the White Oak Conservation Center in North Florida and now call the Naples Zoo home … On the culinary scene, we are tipsy with excitement over the arrival of Paradise Wine, an “adult beverage concierge” featuring 3,000 wines, 800 beers and 1,200 spirits—and the culinary genius of Brian Roland, whose Crave Culinaire provides foods to compliment the tastings … And, proof that Southwest Florida’s fine dining scene has gone big league, celebrity chef Art Smith opened his latest venture, 1500 South, at the Naples Bay Resort. Bon appetit, indeed!
Best theater revival: 12 Angry Men by Florida Repertory Theatre. The classic courtroom drama was first produced more than 60 years ago, but its insight into truth and justice resonate today. And, the Florida Rep production captured it perfectly. The setup is simple—12 jurors in a room. But director Charles Morey and a talented cast created a thrilling, insightful update.
Best tournament runs: This year, Florida Gulf Coast University’s women’s team made it to the WNIT finals. Meanwhile, the men’s team returned to the Big Dance for the first time since 2013. And, Naples High School’s football team went to the semi-finals of the state tournament.