Every region is defined by the people who populate it. Judging from this year’s class of Men & Women of the Year, Southwest Florida is defined by a unique mix of strivers and achievers all working in some way to make a positive impact on the area—and by extension, the world at large.
In this issue we honor nine such men and women. They represent different backgrounds and fields of endeavor, but they share one thing in common: they’ve all touched innumerable lives in ways that really count. These individuals run the gamut from an architect with environmental issues on his mind, to an interior designer of rare vision, to a philanthropist who has given more to her community than could ever be totaled in dollars and cents. They’ve worked in the areas of education, development, charities, the arts and entrepreneurship, but their achievements stretch far beyond these fields.
The Activist Artist
At what point did Paul Arsenault’s 46-year career of making art in Naples become a mission? Was it when he hosted a meeting in his home from which a historical museum on Marco Island grew? Or with his insistence that local museums were lacking in Black inclusivity? Perhaps it was with the work he has done for Calusa Waterkeeper, Friends of Fakahatchee and other environmental groups. Or did it start with that first impact of Florida’s verdant native vegetation on his sensibilities back in 1973? Or while recording local heritage with his vibrant images of Calusa tribespeople and Florida’s cattle heritage?
“I’m now more inclined to use my art as a vehicle for environmental awareness and solutions, and for honoring humanitarian and cultural icons,” the impressionist artist says.
In early 2020, before the pandemic crashed the natural rhythms of life, Arsenault had started work on a super-sized project for Naples Botanical Garden’s 10th anniversary, done on-site, plein air.
When the garden closed, the artist was forced to continue his work elsewhere for the next few months—going between a rented space and his historic Old Naples home studio.
He is exhibiting the show, which includes 10 scenes of the garden painted on 4-by-6-foot panels, along with historic paintings of other landmark gardens, through Nov. 8. “The show is important in particular because it was an exhibit outside my gallery, beyond cobbling together random works,” Arsenault says. “We put together an important exhibit dedicated to the evolution of our botanical garden, while touching upon a few other great community gardens.”
The word “community” pops up often in the typically roving conversations with Arsenault, Naples’ unofficial artist laureate. He calls his achievement curating five artists to raise money back in 2008 to build the Marco Island Historical Museum (where his outdoor mural depicting a Calusa village scene greets visitors) “the sweetest, most productive association with community.”
Currently, the artist is preparing a Shorelines exhibition, which will show at the Captiva Civic Association Feb. 18 through March 18. “That’s been the common denominator in how I move and choose to paint: the community on the water,” Arsenault says. — Chelle Koster Walton
The Visionary Designer
Dwayne Bergmann doesn’t think like many other interior designers.
For one, he grew up in a family of custom home builders and spent the formative years of his career working with HD Supply, the wholesale arm of Home Depot.
Not only has the Fort Myers-based designer mastered aesthetics, he also understands the nuts and bolts that go into making a home.
That know-how gives him an edge in his field (most of his work comes from referrals from contractors who appreciate his order and savvy), but it’s the heart he puts into his projects that sets him apart. “I don’t run my business as if I have the only right perspective,” he says. “I don’t go in with a predisposed style or aesthetic.” The personal attention and drive to deliver on individuality contributes to Bergmann’s distinctive aesthetic.
Even his commercial projects, like The Southwest Florida Community Foundation Collaboratory, are proof of this. At the hands of another, the center may have been a nice office space. But with Bergmann’s vision, the renovated train station-turned-community hub exudes style.
Bergmann’s life is the perfect example of using one’s talents and influence to better the world around us. The same heart that goes into his work is reflected in the roster of community initiatives he supports.
Look at any list of philanthropic affairs for a season and you’ll see Bergmann’s name on many committees. He and his husband, Luis, donate their talents and funds to Pace Center for Girls, Lee County; Better Together; SWFL Children’s Charities—the list goes on. “I really don’t think you understand the level of happiness you can achieve until you’re giving back,” he says. And, while he values and supports national organizations, he prefers to invest his dollars and time locally.
He is also growing his business locally. This year, marks the transition from Dwayne Bergmann Interiors as a design business to Dwayne Bergmann as a brand. The designer just opened a showroom on Naples’ Third Street South, where he also introduced his new cabinet line—a range of custom styles that take built-ins beyond the “boxes-and-doors” concept that is common form, combining luxe materials into functional designs. Next comes his own furniture line in 2021 and a yet-to-be-announced licensed design collection the year after that.
We couldn’t think of a better brand to get behind. —Stephanie Granada
The Big-Hearted Restaurateur-Chef
“I’m a fighter,” Naples restaurateur extraordinaire Vincenzo Betulia, says. “People rely on me. I can’t turn my back on them. I just can’t.”
When the government order to close restaurants came in March, Betulia had 230 employees. He could have shuttered his Osteria Tulia, Bar Tulia and The French restaurants on Fifth Avenue South. Instead, he and his business partners pulled trick after trick to keep the staff supported, along with the local farmers and other community purveyors they deal with. “They knew I was open for business not because I wanted to make money,” he says with conviction. “I could’ve sat on my nest egg. I’m not that person. I needed to provide some normalcy for the community.”
Now, as Betulia gets ready to launch his fourth enterprise—Bar Tulia at Mercato, expected to open by the end of February—he looks back at the three months he worked without a day off to nimbly evolve his businesses to COVID-19 mode. He turned The French into a neighborhood grocery, cooked family-style meals to go, rented a parking lot to expand Tulia’s seating, began bottling then canning craft cocktails, and sold frosé by the quart–all the while donating boxed lunches and teacher gift cards to Naples schools, as well as continuing to pay employee’s health insurance.
The community showed its appreciation for Betulia’s hard work to bring comfort during chaos. It wasn’t unusual to see a $1,000 tip added to a $100 tab, he says. In a couple of weeks, tips amounting to $65,000 were divvied among employees that were furloughed.
In less than a decade, Betulia has solidified his importance in the community. Before opening his first restaurant in Naples in 2013, he headed the kitchen at Campiello on Third Street South for nine years, after working his way up the ladder upon falling in love with Naples during a vacation in 1998. Then came Bar Tulia in 2015 and The French in 2017.
Mercato came to the chef to propose another Bar Tulia in North Naples—the space is planned as a marriage of Tulia, The French and something entirely different that promises once again to redefine Naples dining. “I’m so proud to be a restaurant owner in Naples, Florida,” he says. His innovation, commitment and instincts for creating convivial restaurants and a sense of security have put him in high regard. Now his generosity and caring have made him a local hero.
“I don’t have an option to fail,” he says. “It’s my family of 230.” —C.K.W.
The Lifetime Philanthropist
Janet Cohen has touched the lives of so many in Southwest Florida. Take the Jewish community, which now has a beautiful and updated museum to commemorate their history and culture. Or the students at Florida Gulf Coast University, where Cohen funded the Harvey and Janet Cohen Student Union (which is lovingly known as Harv’s Place on campus) to host career fairs and social events, and provide quiet places for people to relax between classes. When asked about her contributions, she jokes, “You mean I did right for a change?”
Cohen’s charitable efforts in Southwest Florida date back to the ’90s when she and her late husband, Harvey, retired to the area. “I think it started with the Naples Philharmonic,” she ponders.
To Cohen, giving back isn’t about keeping score of the dollars or earning praise from peers, it’s about making a difference. Recounting her youth, Cohen says that even though her parents didn’t have much to give, they taught her the importance of supporting the community. Whether she’s helping a close friend behind the scenes or publicly pledging millions to a children’s cause—like the $3 million she gave to fund a garden at the Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida to offer respite to sick children and their families—her sense of responsibility is evident.
“It’s a very good feeling to know that I’m accomplishing something worthwhile,” Cohen says. Soon after the garden project, she contributed to the creation of the The Salvation Army Fran Cohen Youth Center in East Naples, in memory of her only daughter, Fran.
The next year, she was at it again, supporting the Holocaust Museum & Cohen Education Center by donating $1 million toward its new building off Tamiami Trail. Last year, other efforts led to the opening of Avow Hospice’s Aunt Janet’s House, where kids can benefit from bereavement therapy in a setting that feels more like a home than a therapist’s office. Her reason for such dedication to supporting her community: “I don’t know, maybe I’m turning into Florence Nightingale.” –Jaynie Bartley
The Environmentalist Architect
If you were to picture a nonprofit human-service organization’s building, you might conjure the image of a rather humdrum, budget-conscious complex. We wouldn’t fault you for that, but we’d point out that you certainly don’t know architect David Corban of Naples, who has created stunning spaces (fiscally responsible ones, of course) that honor nonprofit organizations’ missions, staffs and, critically, their clients.
Take Grace Place for Children & Families in Golden Gate and its contemporary facade and airy classrooms. “A well-designed school makes students pay more attention, and it makes teachers enjoy their day more,” he says. Or the Shelter for Abused Women & Children’s new Shelly Stayer Shelter, where Corban eschewed institutional-feeling hallways for apartment “pods” that give women a greater sense of ownership and the warmth of home.
His philosophy has nonprofits knocking at his door. Other clients include the Holocaust Museum & Cohen Education Center, Catholic Charities’ Judy Sullivan Family Resource Center and Friends of Fakahatchee, which contracted Corban to make their longtime dream for a new boardwalk and interpretation center come true.
“I think architects can help with improving the social good,” Corban says. “I think we owe it to (nonprofits and their clients) to give them our best effort—to give them the best space we can provide.”
He’s done plenty of commercial work, too, including the acclaimed Celebration Park, a waterfront bar and food truck venue, for which he received the coveted Honor Award of Excellence in the New Work category from the American Institute of Architects Florida chapter earlier this year.
Regardless of project type, environmental consciousness pervades Corban’s work. Grace Place is the first LEED-certified campus in Collier County; the under-construction Lutgert Professional Center is being built to LEED standards as well. Corban’s own self-designed home on Halderman Creek is considered one of the county’s greenest and was listed among the “top 100 buildings built in Florida in the past 100 years” by the AIA. “Buildings are right up there with transportation and industry as the biggest burners of fossil fuels,” Corban says. “Architects have a huge responsibility to be part of the solution for climate change.” —Jennifer Reed
The Spirited Community Builder
If you said JoAnn Elardo is driven to create a stellar product and a standout business, you’d be right. Partially.
If you said she’s driven to do those things—plus invigorate her community—you would have pinned her down precisely.
Elardo is founder of Wicked Dolphin Artisan Rum in Cape Coral. The distillery’s bright blue exterior is quirky, like her life story: A stint at Merrill Lynch, a leap into television production and sales, then a bold move to Poland where Elardo established a footwear distributing company and an athletic clothing and footwear shop that erupted into a 30-store chain throughout Eastern and Central Europe.
Back stateside in 2008, she and her husband, Robert, settled in Cape Coral and leapt into civic life. “I noticed the need for an animal shelter in Cape Coral. We had almost 200,000 people at the time, and no animal shelter,” she says. (She has three adopted pooches.) The no-kill Cape Coral Animal Shelter opened last March. “We have a really good community here in the Cape,” Elardo says. “I think we’re quiet–but we’re mighty.”
She opened Wicked Dolphin in 2012 and looked to leverage it for good. That takes many shapes—bolstering regional tourism; insisting on Florida-grown sugar and fruits; persuading state lawmakers to change Prohibition-era rules (more than 25 new distilleries have opened since); supporting area nonprofits; and diversifying the Cape’s economic base. When the pandemic struck, she and Dan Termini, her nephew and distiller, shifted from making drinkable alcohol to the hand-sanitizing variety. They gave it away—first to Lee Health, and then to the community.
Sustainability matters, too. Elardo has installed technology to minimize water use and planted dozens of trees at the distillery’s site. “It’s really important to give back to community. I think we all do in a lot of ways. But I think for some people it definitely is their purpose and they’re driven to it,” she says.
Last summer, Elardo sold her other business, Big Blue Brewing, to concentrate on Wicked Dolphin. You can bet there will be much more coming from that bright blue building—and it won’t just be rum. —J.R.
The Sustainable Developer
What a year to be in charge!
Last January, Sydney Kitson was elected to chairman of the Board of Governors for the State University System of Florida, supervisors of the state’s 12 higher-learning institutions. He delved in with the gusto you’d expect from an ex-NFL’er and the guy who is building his own town—the solar-powered, high-tech, civic-minded Babcock Ranch in Charlotte County. “One of my primary initiatives was to work with the universities to prepare our students to work with the business community and really marry those two,” says Kitson, who is also a past chairman of the Florida Chamber of Commerce board and incoming chairman of the Florida Council of 100. Three months later, COVID-19 erupted.
Goodbye, long-term visioning. Hello, crisis management.
Seventy thousand professors took their classes online, 420,000 students logged in from home. Meanwhile, Kitson oversaw the delicate work of crafting a reopening blueprint. The agreed-upon plan offered both universal guidance and ample flexibility. Not everyone was pleased—a statewide faculty union opposed in-person instruction—but Kitson stands behind the decision to resume live operations and believes the universities will anchor the state’s pandemic recovery. It’s a roundabout way of achieving his education-business union, but, hey, Kitson is all about the long game.
Should you need proof, look to Babcock Ranch. Kitson conceived the town in the early aughts, negotiated a historic land purchase, persevered through the Great Recession and welcomed the first residents in 2018. Pandemic notwithstanding, sales remain brisk, construction endures and environmental benefits mount. (The carbon offset from the town’s Florida Power & Light solar facilities is equivalent to removing some 24,000 cars from the road annually.)
Building a town would be quite enough for most businesspeople. Not this one. “You know, in life you don’t get to choose the timing of opportunities,” says the former guard for the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys. That’s why he said “yes” to the Board of Governors, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Council of 100, and to any other number of leadership invitations. “When that opportunity presents itself, you have a choice to make.”
We’ll happily assert that Floridians are better off for Kitson’s decisions.—J.R.
The Next-Gen Philanthropist
Normally, at this time of year, Jennifer McCurry is making the rounds in the ballrooms of Naples, helping raise millions for charity. This year, many of those events have been cancelled due to the pandemic. But the need to raise money will remain. “We’ll need to get creative this year,” she says.
Thankfully, McCurry has a knack for the creative.
She comes from a tight-knit extended family in Iowa that always encouraged her artistic side. Her parents, Susie and David McCurry, came to Naples about 20 years ago, and she followed a few years after. A budding jewelry designer with a degree from the Gemological Institute of America, McCurry held a trunk show for her line at Marissa Collections. She eventually became the boutique’s jewelry and accessories buyer, helping build the collection to feature more than 60 designers. In recent years, she’s shifted her focus. “It’s hard to explain,” she says. “You feel like you’ve done everything, but then you want to do more.”
She had become a mother of twin boys, who are now 4 years old. And she started to get more involved in philanthropy. Like her parents, she had been a fixture at Naples’ many galas. But recently, she started getting more involved in organizing. In the last couple of years, she co-chaired the American Cancer Society’s Bucket List Bash and the Naples Zoo Gala. Last year, the zoo event raised a record $1.3 million with her help.
Her reasons for donating time and energy are varied: She became more involved at the zoo after getting a behind-the-scenes tour from CEO Jack Mulvena; she joined with the cancer society after watching so many friends and family suffer from the disease. But, overall, she just feels a strong desire to give back to her community.
Typically, McCurry attends and supports more than a dozen events in a social season. And though this year will be different, she knows Naples will step up. “We will need to continue to support each other and remain dedicated to our causes,” she says. “I believe more than ever, it should be a year of gratitude and appreciation.” —Justin Paprocki
The Education Crusader
Just a glance at Harlan Parrish’s resume finds an impressive list of volunteer experience: current chairman of the Foundation for Lee County Public Schools, longtime involvement in the United Way, executive council membership for Florida Gulf Coast University’s economic and finance department. At times, he’s served on six or seven boards at once.
Impressive, but it’s not about the resume. As he tells his younger colleagues at FineMark National Bank and Trust, where he’s the Lee County president, volunteering isn’t a career booster. It’s about making the place you live in better. “Find something you’re passionate about,” he tells them. “And don’t just serve, take on a leadership position.”
The Alabama native has lived on and off in Southwest Florida for more than 20 years along with his wife, Kristi, and two children, Drew and Elise. As he rose in the ranks of the local banking industry, his reputation grew as someone who was willing to lend his leadership to help nonprofits flourish. “We live here and we work here; we want to make this place a great place for everybody to live and work,” he says.
He did leave briefly to serve as a CEO of an Alabama-based bank. But after four years, he was lured back to Florida in 2015 to join FineMark, where he has been since. FineMark president Joe Catti played a big role in tempting him to return, but it also had a lot do to with the three Ws of Southwest Florida, he says: “weather, water and the way of life.”
All this time, he’s been especially committed to the Lee schools foundation, joining shortly after arriving in the area in the late ’90s and even staying involved while he was living back in Alabama. He also serves as a mentor with the foundation’s Take Stock in Children program. His passion for education starts with his father, a U.S. Air Force veteran who took night classes to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Parrish himself worked multiple jobs to put himself through college at Auburn University. “My parents said, ‘The only place where ‘success’ comes before ‘work’ is the dictionary.’” —J.P.
Photography by Brian Tietz