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Choice Neighborhoods: Fort Myers Beach

“The People ... Know How to Relax.”



 

The best way to get to Fort Myers Beach is via San Carlos Boulevard in Fort Myers because it takes you to the Matanzas Pass Bridge and one of the defining panoramas of Southwest Florida.

The bridge’s concrete walls are painted seafoam green on one side, sky blue on the other, a mood-setting gateway to paradise. A bad traffic day—most days during season—is a bit of a gift because you’re forced to slow down and take in the scenery: the stately Diversified Yacht Services to the right, the inviting Doc Ford’s restaurant to your left, and then up, up, up to the bridge’s crest, past the shrimp boats docked in the bay, until the sparkling gulf comes into view. Color explodes—greens, purples, pinks, yellows, blues.

Your heart sings, “Vacation!”

And, to be sure, a trip to the beach is vacation (or extended wintertime respites) for most of the tens of thousands of people who pack the island for roughly a third of the year. But for about 6,500 people, Fort Myers Beach is home—a fact that is easy to forget amid the beachwear shops and tourist kitsch, the inns and hotels, the jocular (and often intoxicated) spring breakers.

“We are not a resort island,” declares Tracey Gore, who’s lived there since she was a toddler, married a shrimper and raised her 24-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter there. “We incorporated 20 years ago to make sure of that.”

This little band of residents is fiercely proud of, and protective of, their 7-mile strip.

The town incorporated back in 1995 following the construction of DiamondHead Beach Resort & Spa, a 12-story beachfront structure that made year-rounders shudder at the potential Pandora’s Box it opened. The vote took growth, development and zoning decisions away from county administrators—sitting way over there on the mainland—and gave them to the people who had to live with the ramifications.

“The challenge was to establish something without terrifying everyone,” says Anita Cereceda, the inaugural mayor who served from 1995 to 2000 and resumed mayoral duties a year ago. In ’95, the goal was to establish a local government while allaying fears about increased costs or new layers of regulation for residents. Now, it’s more about teaming with other municipal leaders to deal with big-picture issues. (And overseeing the upcoming $50 million Estero Boulevard-widening project that aims to make much-needed safety improvements for bikers and pedestrians along this main thoroughfare.)

Growth, however, has always remained the looming issue. Lifelong residents are watching in dismay as the traditional wooden cottages are bulldozed and replaced by new “starter castles,” as Jim Rodwell, a retired CPA who moved to Fort Myers Beach permanently in 2003, calls them.

“The island is changing,” he says.

Alice Dickson, a real estate agent who lives on the beach, can attest to that. There are no more empty lots, she says. The median home price hovers around half a million.

Fort Myers Beach’s story echoes that of so many other small coastal communities—founded by families and discovered by developers, travel and tourism executives, wealthy people with money to invest in second homes.

AJ Bassett was one of the island’s early residents. She recounts the day her family arrived in 1940 as if she were still 6 years old and captivated by the wonder of it: Her mom, grandmother, big brother, twin sister and she piling out of the car they’d driven from Pennsylvania; the jungle of sea oats; the pathway cut through the reeds to the sea.

As the family settled into their rented cottage (which is still standing), her mother laid down a single restriction for her rambunctious lot: “You may not leave the island. That was our one rule. Can you imagine?” The community was tight then—just 279 people—and if Bassett’s mother were to look for the children, she could see for miles—a vast expanse of unbroken sea and sand. You can still experience the island that Bassett remembers in the 57-acre Matanzas Preserve, where dense native vegetation drowns civilization’s din.

“We knew every building on this island,” Bassett says. Population climbed after the United States joined World War II and soldiers reported to the Buckingham Army Airfield near Lehigh Acres; their families found the beach more alluring than the inland tracts.

Still, residents celebrate the things that make the beach home. And those things extend well beyond the beach chairs, open-air bars and Jet Ski rentals that may define the place for the visitors. That starts with the people themselves.

“I always call the beach the ‘great equalizer,’” Dickson says. “When you’re standing there with shorts and flip-flops, you have no idea who you are talking to.” You could just as well have encountered an ex-CEO as you could have a homeless man. There’s no pretense, either. No East Coast glam, no pressure to develop a runway-worthy physique, no need to be someone you’re not.

With so few year-rounders, everyone knows everyone and everyone chips in when needed, Gore says.

“If somebody needs something, there are so many organizations on the island who support people in need,” she says. The support extends to everyday matters, too—carpooling kids to mainland events, taking neighbors’ shopping lists on runs “OTB” (over-the-bridge), Gore says. That’s among the reasons she remains rooted on Fort Myers Beach—for that sense of small-town Americana that people in other communities lament having lost.

The sea molds attitudes. “The expression ‘island time’ is real. It’s very, very real,” says Cereceda, laughing. Ex-New Englanders tend to fare poorly there; Midwesterners more readily adapt.

“The people who live here—the people who really love it—they know how to relax,” Rodwell says. “It’s like getting sand in your shoes.”

The part-time residents get drawn in, too. If the year-round community is something akin to immediate family, the snowbirds are regarded as cousins, Cereceda says. Their arrival is another way year-rounders mark the passing of time. 

Survey the surroundings just a little more closely (a good game for when stuck in traffic) and a community’s infrastructure will emerge: the school; library; recreation center; and the mainstay doctors’, lawyers’ and CPA offices—and then the fishing and shrimping industry that makes Fort Myers Beach unique. The beach is home to the state’s largest shrimp fleet, which goes out for up to a month at a time, trolling by moonlight for “Pink Gold,” the region’s native shrimp.

The fleet has been shrinking for some time, shrimpers abandoning their nets because of foreign competition, market prices, the cost of fuel and other pressures. Those who remain are fighting for policy and regulatory changes that keep their product relevant.  

“We’re working real hard on labeling,” says Chris Gala, part of a multi-generation shrimping family who co-owns Trico Shrimp Co. with her husband, George. “They have got to label everything and tell you where it’s coming from. … With a lot of these imports, (companies) will take imported shrimp and put them in a box saying they are a local product. That’s not good for us. We are trying to be proactive.”

The industry is second only to tourism on the island and integral to local economy and culture. “There is often a stereotype of what a ‘shrimper’ is ... but locals know that real shrimpers have families, homes, and are a huge asset to the economy,” Gore says. “Each boat spends about $1,000 per month at the local grocery store for their boat groceries, and depending on the price, $10,000 to $20,000 a month on fuel—plus oil, net repairs, mechanical repairs, freezer, electronic repairs, etc., and it’s all local shops and repairmen they use.”

Meanwhile, other residents work to bring different dimensions to their town and extend beyond beach-themed activities. Elizabeth D’Onofrio, an actress, director and co-founder of a North Carolina film festival, moved to Fort Myers Beach about six years ago and helped resurrect the Fort Myers Beach Film Festival, which is attracting filmmakers from around the world. “It puts Fort Myers Beach on the map as a supporter of culture and the arts,” D’Onofrio says. This year’s festival will be held April 22-26.

Mid-island, the newly expanded, independent Fort Myers Beach Public Library shines like a community gem. Architecturally stunning, the building plays host to everything from toddler programs held beneath an enormous indoor tree sculpture to author presentations like a January talk by Robert Macomber that packed the place. “It has truly sparked something in this community,” Director Leroy Hommerding says. “I think it gave many residents a sense of pride.”

Behind it stands Fort Myers Beach Elementary, the childhood home for generations of islanders. It’s the town’s only school, and it’s open only to residents or children whose parents work on the beach. Every business in town supports them; every organization finds ways to incorporate them into special events.

“We are involved in just about everything here on the island. It’s really a special little place,” says Larry Wood, the principal and a beach resident.

For residents, off-island commutes can be a chore, but they never grow tired of cresting the Matanzas Pass Bridge. Only, the thought that pops into their heads is not, “Ahhh … vacation.”

“When the island first comes into view,” Cereceda says, “I still get that feeling, that deep breath … Aahhh. I’m home.”

 

Check out Choice Neighborhood Port Royal.

 

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