Fort Myers Beach Mayor Ray Murphy talks present, future in return to mayorship
Ray Murphy is in his second stint as mayor after being elected unanimously by the Fort Myers Beach Council last week. Murphy was on the Fort Myers Beach Council following the town’s incorporation in the 1990’s, and served two terms.
“It’s an honor to be the mayor of the town,” Murphy said.
He takes on the position at a time when businesses have temporarily shuttered all over town due to the government-ordered beach closures, restaurant restrictions and commercial lodging ban which has cut off the circulation of visitors to the town in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s the first time he can remember the beach closing. “I can’t remember that ever happening,” Murphy said of the beach access ban. There have been times over the years when access into town has been closed for hurricanes and evacuations. During Hurricane Charlie in 2004, people were not allowed on the island for several days but you could go on the beach.
Since the pandemic began and the town board took actions that closed down much of its hospitality business, Murphy believes the council’s actions have proven to be the correct ones. “So far, so good,” he said. “It seems to me that was the best thing we could have done.
“It emptied out the whole beach.”
Murphy said there has not been a need to ticket anybody for trespassing on the sand of the beach, which has closed to the public since last month. The town council’s beachgoing ban threatened fines of up to $5,000 for violators. “The level of compliance on the beach has been off the charts,” Murphy said. “Can you imagine what it’s like to live in a beachfront house or a beachfront condominium and not be able to go on the beach?”
The new mayor pointed to the large number of deaths being reported in New York City from COVID-19 as an example of what the town is guarding against. “Our little sacrifices we are making down here really pale in comparison,” Murphy said. “We’ve come too far to blow it in the next couple of weeks.”
Making a comparison to Detroit being a city built around the car industry, Murphy said Fort Myers Beach revolves around tourism. “Everybody’s out of business,” he said. The workers in the hospitality industry “are not getting a paycheck and the bills are still coming.” With an overwhelmed state unemployment system, the situation “couldn’t have come at a worse time” during the town’s peak tourism season, Murphy said. “Lots of people are hurting.”
Murphy said his father John, a 98-year-old veteran of World War II and the Great Depression has said he doesn’t think the current situation could get as bad as it was in the 1930’s. “That is somewhat comforting,” Murphy said.
Looking back and looking forward
When Murphy was first on the town council, he said the town had a concept of “government-light,” back then with a small group of staff and the rest of the work outsourced. The town’s operations have since grown and there is less outsourcing. “People have different expectations” for services, Murphy said. He said the council was very busy in those early days, meeting twice a week.
“I truly thought it would be the end of my service,” Murphy said of his first two terms on the council. Murphy ran again for council last year and won a term which was turned into a four-year term (through 2023) after a referendum vote in March. Murphy said the water quality crisis led him back into service. He has seen a major improvement in the water. “I’ve never seen (the Gulf of Mexico) look so good. It looks like the Caribbean.”
The last town council disagreed most sharply on a hotly contested case involving a proposed dune walkover adjacent to the Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area which the previous council opposed and went to court to stop. Murphy and former Councilmember Bruce Butcher supported the walkover, which was proposed by two property owners who own homes under limited liability companies. Newly-elected councilmembers Dan Allers and Jim Atterholt voted to approve the walkover while on the Local Planning Agency last year, though during their campaigns they offered more nuanced positions. The matter could still end up in court or in mediation and it is not clear how the current council may influence the process.
With much of the town’s business closed, most snowbirds having returned home and traffic non-existent, Murphy is hopeful the Estero Boulevard road project will be able to move along swifter.
Murphy also is looking forward to plans for Bayfront Park, which could include a new building and other construction. He said he is “very anxious” to get Margaritaville going. “That’s what is going to bring us out of the recession down here.” The next court date on that case has been set for June.
When he gets asked about why the town doesn’t re-open its beach at this time, Murphy explains things in a straightforward way.
“I’m not rude to anyone but when they ask me, I say we are trying to save your life. If you aren’t concerned about your own life, you need to be concerned about other people’s lives.”