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A campus at a crossroads

Costing big money, lacking direction and not on the radar for many, what is the future of Bay Oaks and how will it get there?

March 30, 2016
By John Morton - Editor (jmorton@breezenewspapers.com) , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

"Is Bay Oaks ending?"

Cutting to the chase, that's what Fort Myers Beach Town Council member Summer Stockton asked out loud during a March 7 council meeting.

When she received a shake of the head saying no from Town Manager Don Stilwell, Stockton said the rumors to the contrary are strong.

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The outfield fence is home to a smattering of ads, but they aren't in the best of shape.

"It's definitely out there in the community," she said.

Having grown up a Bay Oaks kid, Stockton expressed her worries about the state of affairs at a place she holds dear to her heart - but a place town staff says is costing big money with limited direction, structure and usage.

The campus features two ball fields, a gymnasium, a workout room and a lifeguard-staffed aquatic facility with two pools one for the kids, complete with elaborate slides, and one for the adults, complete with swimming lanes. The complex is also home to many programs and offers after-school care.

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"I remember going there after school every day," Stockton said. "It was my second home."

Some history

Bay Oaks was built by Lee County to serve as a regional recreation facility, but gave it to the town in 2009 when it determined it couldn't properly run it.

This fiscal year, its budgeted cost to the town is $815,500 - representing about a quarter of the property taxes collected here - for basic operations including salaries and maintenance. But if recent history is an indicator, the actual cost could rise. For 2014-15, $872,379 was the budget but $1.04 million was the reality. In fact, actual costs for Bay Oaks have exceeded budgeted costs for three straight years.

Thanks to state and federal grants, the town's cost to run Bay Oaks back in 2009 was a little more than $300,000 a year, according to Town Manager Don Stilwell.

"That was something we could live with," he said.

But that grant money has dried up. Meanwhile, the town kept adding programs, services and events "most every time they were requested," Stilwell said.

"It wasn't one big thing - it just happened incrementally," he said. "We are trying to be all things to all people."

He pointed to ongoing bus trips to sporting events and a recent hosting of a craft-beer show as losing efforts, as far dollars are concerned.

Added Maureen Rischitelli, the town's director of administrative services, "Since we took over Bay Oaks, no core services have ever been identified."

And the revenue it brings is mostly an unknown and poorly tracked, she said. Currently it all goes toward offsetting the cost of programs, and Rischitelli is currently trying to pinpoint what revenue comes from where. There are user fees at the pool, non-resident user fees at the recreation center (comprising of a gymnasium and fitness center), user fees for programs, money being placed into soda machines, and tickets purchased for such things as the bus trips and other community events.

Problem is, she said, many of the services aren't being funded completely by the user, with the town taking a hit on the balance of actual cost. An example used by Stilwell was Bay Oaks sponsoring a trip to a Miami Dolphins football game, which it has done, but only charging for a ticket and food. Meanwhile, the town ended up covering the cost of the bus, the fuel and the time spent on the event by the town's employees, making it a losing proposition.

"Nothing with parks and recreation is ever going to make money," Stilwell said, "and that's not the intention. The intention is public good. So let's focus on what programs the town really wants and needs."

In late April or early May, Stilwell and Rischitelli plan to approach the council with a detailed line-item budget and suggestions regarding Bay Oaks, hopefully once and for all getting a grip on what the council sees as Bay Oak's role in the community.

"Closing it down will not be one of the suggestions," Stilwell said. "I've never heard anyone suggest that."

Difficult times get more difficult

Until that time, Bay Oaks continues to take some big hits in terms of reputation and functionality.

Since Stockton's inquiry, Parks and Recreation Director Randy Norton was dismissed (on March 11).

Stilwell will not disclose the reason for his termination, citing employee confidentiality.

Bay Oaks came under Norton's direction, and his departure leaves three full-time town employees with two vacancies.

Then, on March 21, several concerned seniors attended the Town Council meeting and handed in a petition comprised of more than 200 signatures, demanding better services at Bay Oaks and the reinstatement of Norton.

"He was the best director Bay Oaks ever had," said Becky Bodnar, a member of Bay Oaks' advisory board, who also said two projects had been recently cancelled, including the creation of a recreation trail.

Resident Natalie Manning asked Stilwell - who she noted was the county's manager when Bay Oaks was passed along - if the rumors were true that Bay Oaks was destined to fall under the umbrella of the Public Works Department and merely serve as a place for the town to park its overflow of vehicles and equipment.

"Absolutely not," Stilwell later said in response to the comments.

He noted that filling the two Bay Oaks-related positions is on hold as he awaits the meeting with the council.

"Why make the hires if the council members want something different," Stilwell said. "What I do know is that of all the recommendations out there, none of them involve closing Bay Oaks. I've never heard it mentioned."

At recent council meetings, words like "overhaul" and "reorganize" have instead been bandied about with Bay Oaks in mind.

Council member Anita Cereceda prefers the term "re-focus."

"It was designed to have a regional draw, but that is no longer the case," she said of Bay Oaks. "Now, we need to find out how to best direct it with our local residents in mind. It's our responsibility to find out what people want out of it."

Interest is a bit hard to gauge when you look at membership numbers, however, considering how in 2013 the Town Council decided to classify all Estero Island residents as free-of-cost members to the recreation center. It ballooned membership numbers from about 300 to more than 2,600, but not a dollar came with it. Previously, annual memberships cost $25 for residents.

"I think they were just trying to generate some excitement," Stilwell said of the move.

Today, membership revenue for the recreation center comes exclusively from non-residents, of which there are only 41 on an annual basis (31 individual, 10 family) at $35 and $70, respectively. Non-residents also hold 58 seasonal memberships, 34 as individuals at $20 and 24 with a family membership at $40.

In total, that accounts for $3,425 in membership dues this year for the recreation center.

But daily-use fees also bring in money at $4 per day ($2 for those under 12) for non-residents.

Use of the pool costs money for both residents and non-residents. Daily use is set at $4 for an adult resident, $5 for an adult non-resident, and $2 and $3, respectively, for a child. Annual memberships at the pool for an individual cost $50 and $75 respectively, for a family $75 and $100, and for seasonal $30 and $40. But only a combined total of 155 people have them.

Council member Rexann Hosafros said at a Feb. 1 council meeting that fees these are too low.

Yet still, usage is also low, with Norton reporting that the gym as at full-capacity only 35 percent of the time.

Council members then wondered if the fact the center closed on Sundays is a lost opportunity. On weekdays, it is open from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Further, Bay Oaks is now nearly 30 years old (it opened in October of 1986) an in need of repair. When the town inherited the complex, with it came a capital improvement budget of $490,000, Rischitelli said, but only $90,000 of it has been spent and that occurred in the first year. She said large projects are on hold pending the council's direction.

Norton on Feb. 1 told the council the gym floor needed replacing and one of the two pool heaters is consistently non-operational.

Patrick Moore, a local snowbird from Louisville, said during a March 7 visit to the pool that he's frustrated with what he called "ice cold" water. The pool's temperature is 75 degrees.

"I have only been able to swim here four times the past four months," he said. "I only come here on days when it's hot outside, because the water is just otherwise way too cold. It's never heated."

That day at the pool also found the posting of a sign at its entrance announcing the giant slide was closed "until further notice" due to the need for repairs.

Other updates needed at the complex include a new roof and air-conditioning system, Norton's report said.

And when the council discussed on March 7 whether to reappoint the facility's advisory-board members, Stilwell suggested it first put some more thought into Bay Oaks.

"The town has a lot of liability here," he said. "Those buildings and pools need maintenance."

Asked Rischitelli, "How much do you want to spend on 2,600 people?"

The town has since made those reappointments.

Off the beaten path

Then there is the problem with visibility, for both visitors and residents alike.

Tucked behind large buildings like the Public Library, Topp's Supermarket, Town Hall and Chapel by the Sea, Bay Oaks is impossible to see from Estero Boulevard. In fact, only when standing on the mound in front of Town Hall can you see the large slide that towers above the pool.

In terms of signage, all that stands on the main thoroughfare is a 5-foot-high green wooden swinging marker at the entrance of a narrow walking trail that leads to the campus. It doesn't list any of the campus' amenities.

"Can we at least attach a sign to it with big letters that say 'pool?'" asked Stockton during a recent meeting. "Anything would help."

Not only does the main Bay Oaks sign blend into the landscape, it is overwhelmed by larger nearby signs and the road-work barriers that have made their way to where it stands. Making matters worse, it currently is adjacent to a construction site for a new house. Last week, the sign was removed entirely for several days to prevent it from being damaged.

Another small road sign stands at Bay Road, giving directions in small print and noting an "aquatic facility."

"We had no idea it was even here, and we've been visiting for six years," said Nadine Rozenboom, on vacation from Des Moines, as she recently left the recreation center after a game of pickle-ball. "When we finally learned about it last year, we had a terrible time even finding it."

And how did she finally learn of it? Did a resident tell her about Bay Oaks, or did she finally see the sign?

"No, I found it on the Internet," she said.

Added John Memelaar, her playing partner who is also from Des Moines, "I'll bet you nine out of 10 people visiting Fort Myers Beach have never heard of it."

That suits Moore just fine.

"I love the fact no one knows about this place," he said. "Let's keep it that way. It's great that I don't have a bunch of people trying to use the swimming lanes."

Beyond the lack of awareness by visitors, the town wants to know why its own residents don't use Bay Oaks or may not even know about it. The council members asked Norton during his Feb. 1 report that he wasn't giving them the feedback they need, saying a recent survey he conducted on the town's website was insufficient. Norton said part of the problem was a lack of marketing.

Former council member Alan Mandel said at the time the ideal scenario would be to have one-third of the expense of running Bay Oaks covered by revenue, coupled with a special fund for improvements arising from fund-raising efforts.

Donation campaigns have worked in the past, demonstrated by a sign on the outside of the pool that recognizes contributors.

"If everyone on the island wants Bay Oaks, they'll have to pay for it," Mandel said.

Rischitelli said the donation fund stood at $6,000, and those dollars are all earmarked for specific items as a condition of the donation. A major fund-raising endeavor hasn't taken place in years, she said.

Those with a history hope for remedies

San Carlos Island resident Charlie Whitehead goes way back with Bay Oaks, once sitting on its advisory board and helping to design a Frisbee golf course and helping to organize an adult basketball league. A longtime Little League coach there who now volunteers as an umpire, he voiced his disappointment to the council recently in saying that the average recreation budget for Florida towns of similar size surpasses that of Fort Myers Beach, citing a report from the Florida Parks and Recreation Association.

"On average, other cities spend $160 per year per person. We're spending $130," he said after crunching numbers based upon an $806,000 Fort Myers Beach parks and recreation budget, divided by its 6,200 residents. "Is that the kind of town you want to be?

"We need to make this a priority, especially for our young people and our seniors. They're our most vulnerable. Providing them opportunities is the most important thing government does."

Stilwell agreed that a sharper focus narrowed down to seniors and kids could be an important first step.

"That's the direction I'd like to see it go," he said.

Like Stockton, Bay Oaks was also a big part of the life of the children of beach-area native Tracey Gore. Having recently been elected to the town's council, she is making the issue a priority. During her first meeting on March 21, she volunteered to serve as liaison to the Bay Oaks advisory board.

"I want this council to get with the town manager at public hearing so we can ease the concerns of the residents that Bay Oaks is not closing," she said. "As a resident, I have heard the concerns of fellow islanders regarding the future of Bay Oaks. As a councilwoman, that is an issue I want to put to bed. Bay Oaks is not closing.

"I have spoken to seniors, parents, educators and others who use Bay Oaks and who want to be sure there are structured programs."

Complex has attributes, guests say

Some of the island's guests also feel there is plenty of potential. Asked if competing with the beach across the street was a challenge, several agreed but said it wasn't insurmountable. Moore was one of them.

"Although the beach is the big draw everywhere you go these days, not everyone wants to swim in that gulf water - especially if it's going to be brown," he said, referring to the Lake Okeechobee discharges that have impacted it. "If only this pool was warm, it would be packed. It's really a great set-up otherwise."

A couple vacationing from Germany with three toddlers said on March 7 that their discovery of the kiddie pool while they surfed online was a deciding factor on their choice of Fort Myers Beach.

"It eased my mind so much knowing this was here," said the mother, who asked that her name not be used. "The ocean is too difficult for us right now."

And Pat and Henry Fiedler, visitors from Annapolis, Md., also said the complex had a lot going for it.

"It's just a beautiful setting and the people working here are very friendly," said Henry Fiedler after a game of pickle-ball.

Added Pat Fiedler, "We think the place is great. You don't see this type of thing - something so peaceful and community-oriented and laid back - in places where you see so much tourism. If not enough people know about it, I'll be happy to pass the word."

 
 

 

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