A candidate forum last week provided a quick look into the hive mind of Fort Myers Beach.
What it showed was two camps of concern: distrust of the town government and a desire for revitalization.
More than 100 people gathered in the pews of St. Raphael's Episcopal Church Thursday, ready to put the five candidates running for three seats on Town Council to the test. Bruce Butcher, incumbent Anita Cereceda, Forrest "Butch" Critser, Joanne Shamp and Ber Stevenson are all in the running to sit at the dais.
Candidates answered questions from their potential constituents inside St. Raphael's church Thursday, Feb. 9.
Questions asked of the candidates revealed that some in the community are wary of the town and want to stick to, or even dial back to, the "government-lite" ideal on which the town was founded.
One audience member asked for an opinion on residential streets being developed for general public use - a nod to the short-lived controversy over town staff suggesting a kayak launch on Virginia Avenue.
All five said the neighorhoods should be kept for the residents, unless a street came forward and asked for some kind of project that the residents were all interested in. Cereceda also agreed with this stance, despite her past history of supporting public accesses. She's said in previous discussions that the town's comprehensive plan encourages opening town properties and right of ways to the public for enjoyment, but said at Thursday's forum she stood corrected - Shamp had shown her that the comprehensive plan goes further in detail to say public community parks in neighborhoods should only be implemented at the will of the neighbors.
Want your question answered? Here are other upcoming candidate forums.
Meet the Candidates. Monday, Feb. 20, 6:30 p.m.at the Women's Club, 175 Sterling Avenue. Hosted by the Estero Island Taxpayers Association (EITA).
Commotion by the Ocean. Thursday, March 2, 6:30 p.m., Fish Tail Marina, 7225 Estero Blvd. Hosted by the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce.
"I think we should stop discussing using TDC funding in residential neighborhoods," Shamp said. "I think we are good hosts, and we also have the right to our private neighborhoods."
Another resident criticized the number of employees retained by the town, asking how the candidates would work to reduce staffing if elected - a question that was not unanimously answered by all.
Butcher reminded the community that the size of the town's government wasn't arbitrary - the county handed the town Bay Oaks in 2009, thus adding staff; and several departments which were once outsourced were brought in-house again as it was going to cost the town less to pay employees than to contract out for services - points that Cereceda also concurred. But Butcher said the town needed a "rationalization" of how much of its budget was dedicated to Bay Oaks, and find a way to minimize its spending.
Stevenson wasn't sure outsourcing again was the answer, but agreed with the original question that the town had an abundance of vehicles and employees in its service.
"Maybe we can analyze everyone's functions and see where reductions can be made, without destroying people's livelihood," he said.
Shamp, however, said the town was "upside down" in its spending, with a significant percentage of the budget being dedicated to salaries.
Those who weren't concerned with town spending were instead concerned with a decline in the downtown area. Some residents wanted to know what candidates wanted for downtown and how it could be revitalized.
"I am not happy with what I see at Times Square," Cereceda, who owns two businesses there, said. Hotels have been reporting lower booking rates this year than previously, and she said she had a
"grave" concern for the town.
"We have to do something with Seafarers. It makes my skin shiver," she said. "Our front door looks derelict."
Critser made similar comments, saying the end of the bridge needed revitalization to save the island.
"A restaurant owner told me he wasn't sure how much longer he could make it," Critser said. "When I come over that bridge I don't like what I see when I look to the left."
Shamp said she was dismayed with the effect the road construction had had on the businesses on Estero Boulevard, but that portion of the project was nearing completion if the owners could hold out just a few more months. Then, the town needed to "promote the heck out of ourselves." But during her opening statement, Shamp expressed her love for the town's historic structures and its comprehensive plan and doesn't think it needs to change.
"We've got a product that works, why change it?" she said.
When asked what Lee County should do with the Seafarers plaza, which is now its construction staging area for Estero Boulevard, answers were mixed, however. Shamp said it should be used for traffic mitigation, and Butcher agreed but added the county should turn it over to a developer if a traffic plan was not feasible.
Stevenson suggested a trolley staging area for more public transportation - or a Ferris wheel.
"Why can't it be cleaned up now? I'd like to see some TLC," he said.