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Governor funds Lovers Key visitors center

June 28, 2017
Jessica Salmond - News Editor (jsalmond@breezenewspapers.com) , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Rich Donnelly has spent years planning for this.

He was the chairman of the building committee for Friends of Lovers Key State Park (FOLKS) when it was assembled six years ago with the dream of getting a beautiful visitors center for the park.

Now, as the new president of the FOLKS board, he'll lead his group into the project they've all been waiting for: a full visitors center.

Article Photos

A newly-hatched monarch butterfly dries its wings in the Black Island butterfly garden.

"It's been a long haul," Donnelly said. "The end is in sight. It's now real."

Governor Rick Scott vetoed many line items to the 2017-2018 Florida budget, but a $3.55 million appropriation to the state parks service to be allocated to the visitors center stayed safe on the approval spread sheet.

"There were a lot of requests from this area that went unanswered," Donnelly said. "We were very fortunate we didn't get vetoed."

Fact Box

Lovers Key's four distinct habitats

Beach and dunes

"That's the harshest habitat on the island," said Robert Steiger, park manager. "Whatever plants and animals live there, it's almost like a desert but flooded by salt water."

Animals and plants have to be able to survive the hot and windy beaches. Plants such as sea oats, rail road vines and beach sunflowers grow here. In the intertidal area, ghost crabs and coquinas burrow in the sand. Sea turtles nest here, and so do shorebirds such as snowy plovers, least terns, black skimmers and oyster catchers.

Coastal strand

This is the transitionary habitat between the sand and the upland areas. Steiger said it can be hard to distinguish and it's the most popular area for development and building. However, some signature species are sea grapes, coco plums and necklace pods. Gopher tortoises also live here.

Maritime hammock

Coastal strand slopes up to higher elevation, which means hardwood trees. Maritime hammock is hope to live oaks and cabbage palms, strangler figs and buttonwoods. It's also where you'll find land-dwelling mammals like raccoons, possums and marsh rabbits; migratory birds; and nesting residents such as hawks, woodpeckers and owls.

Much of Lovers Key's hammock habitat was dug out to make canals, as the island was once slated for a housing development. However Black Island still retains some of the natural habitat.

Estuary

"It's where saltwater meets freshwater," Steiger said. This mostly marine habitat is a nursery for fish and crabs in the larval stages, and produce fisheries.

"That's really important," he said.

This area is home to mangroves and oyster beds, two components that help cleanse and flush the water. Wading birds hunt here; large fish can been seen here ,too, such as snook and tarpon. Where the water is deep enough, marine mammals like manatees and dolphins live and play.

The $3.55 million, combined with an appropriation last year of $450,000, should be enough for the project. Mark Generales, a Fort Myers resident who took on a brunt of the political maneuvering to get legislators' support for the project, is thrilled.

"It's $4 million in total," he said. "That's a huge chunk for us. We think it will be enough."

The FOLKS group won't be directly involved in the process of getting the building up; the money is coming out of the parks department, who will manage and procure the project. An architect has already been selected - Sweet Sparkman out of Sarasota - and preliminary drawings marked up.

Generales volunteered to take on the campaign for support. As a former county commissioner in South Carolina, he said he wasn't intimidated to speak to legislators and lawmakers both locally, regionally and in Tallahassee to rally support for the long-awaited project.

He also garnered the support of the municipalities around Lovers Key: Fort Myers Beach, Bonita Springs and Estero. In February, he made a presentation to the Fort Myers Beach Town Council to explain the need for the project and how the towns could support it, simply by publicly stating their support to the local representatives. Generales also outlined the economic importance of Lovers Key to the tourism industry in the area.

"Lovers Key is a massive economic driver," Generales said at the February meeting. "The park sits out there, all by itself. It's part of its beauty, but even though it serves so many people it doesn't get as much attention."

It's the second most visited park in the state and had an $88.9 million regional impact and 1 million attendees in 2015.

"We knew the governor was looking at vetoes," he said. "I put out a work to folks to send in a letter of support, and all that really helped."

Generales recruited Representative Matt Caldwell and Senator Kathleen Passidomo lobbying for the center, too.

"I was trying to lead the charge, but it took everybody" he said.

Now that the money is secure, the FOLKS is hoping building will commence sometime in early 2018. The structure will be built across the walkway from the tram stop, where the kayak launch is.

"Sweet Sparkman created a very exciting design for a landmark building for the community," Donnelly, who has a masters degree in architecture, said. "People will be curious just to see what's in it."

The building will have to be lifted 17 feet off the ground, but that space will be utilized either as an outdoor classroom or for the tram stop. It will have an indoor meeting space for park staff, FOLKS or other groups and programs, as well as being a community space available for rent for events and weddings. The other section of the building will house exhibits about the park.

The state is paying for the building, but it's up to FOLKS to fundraise to pay for the exhibits which will be showcased inside. They've already contracted a firm, Split Rock Studios out of Minnesota, to create these exhibits. It will cost an estimated $800,000.

"They're specialized in doing these environmentally-related exhibits, and we've been delighted with what they've produced," Donnelly said. "Now we have to raise funds for the state of the art display."

The plan is to highlight each of the state park's four distinctive ecosystems, each earning its own display. Some parts will be interactive so the entire exhibit is fun for children and adults.

Park Manager Robert Steiger said he was excited for the visitors center, especially for the expanded displays to educate the public.

"It will help educate visitors to what the park is all about, from its natural features to its recreational opportunities," he said.

The majority of people who come to the park are from elsewhere, so a real visitors center will help them to understand more about Florida's ecology and learn about the park they are visiting.

"It's unique in that it's a group of barrier islands," Steiger said.

While Donnelly was on the building committee, the first thing the committee did as a group was to tour other local visitors centers at parks, such as Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, CROW and Rookery Bay.

"We went exploring to find out how other parks addressed the issue of developing their own visitors center," he said. "It was a learning experience."

The proximity of achieving the visitors center holds an even more special symbol to Donnelly and the FOLKS. Don Brown was the FOLKS president and a Village of Estero council member when the effort was launched to get the center. He died June 20 after battling cancer for years.

"When he was president, he said (the center) was something FOLKS should do," Donnelly said.

With examples to serve as a guide, and funding for the building, Lovers Key's upgrade is on the horizon.

November 20, FOLKS will hold its 20th birthday celebration, having been a nonprofit for the park since 1997. The event will be both a celebration of FOLKS and the upcoming ground breaking and a fundraising launch for the exhibits.

"The message is that Lovers Key is more than just a beach," Donnelly said. "It's a unique island and one of a kind."

 
 

 

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