Known over the years as Heitman Avenue, County Road 887 and even Tamiami Trail, historic Old 41 Road is a pedestrian-friendly, slow-paced street lined with mostly family-owned businesses in the heart of downtown Bonita Springs. This month’s Different Avenues feature focuses on the importance Old 41 Road has to the city’s past, present and future.
The federal and state governments bypassed historic Bonita Springs and what is now known as Old 41 Road when Tamiami Trail forged a new route 45 years ago. Local attractions such as the roadside Everglades Wonder Gardens, the 100-year-old Shangri-La Springs hotel and the former Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Track were suddenly off the beaten path of the new section of U.S. 41. Old 41’s timeless Old Florida was no longer part of the Tamiami Trail, an aptly named stretch from Tampa to Miami that was realigned westward in the late 1970s to bypass downtown Bonita and a nearly seven-mile loop with a major four-lane, divided highway.
“There was a lot of argument back and forth. Some people wanted (Old) 41 to be four lanes through Bonita Springs; some people wanted the bypass done. I think, fortunately, the bypass won over,” says Ben Nelson Jr., who served two terms as a councilman when Bonita became a city in 2000, followed by two terms as mayor. His dad, Ben Nelson Sr., owned Nelson’s Hardware, the town’s first hardware store, and the Nelson family lived above it on Old 41.
“Some people didn’t want the bypass because they thought, and rightfully so, that it would suck the business life out of Bonita Springs,” Nelson says. “But at the same time, some of them, including my father, knew that it would be a disaster for our community in general to have a four-lane highway run through the middle of it.”
Because of the bypass, Old 41 Road starts at U.S. 41 in Bonita Springs and ends on U.S. 41 in North Naples. “I still see that as an advantage,” Nelson says. “It allows the community to be walkable. It allows small businesses to thrive.” That was always the vision a lot of Bonita leaders had for that unique stretch, he said.
Nelson, a third-generation Floridian who grew up in Bonita Springs, bought his father’s construction business in 1980 and grew it into Nelson Marine Construction. He and his wife, Lori, later launched Survey Café in a little 1940-era home behind Benson’s Grocery on Old 41.
“When we became a city, one of the main things we wanted to do was breathe life back into and redevelop the Old 41 corridor into a walkable community, one that we could be proud of. And we took those steps to do that,” Nelson says. “We bought up the Bamboo property, the other property across the street from it, what we call the Depot Park. There would be a public-private partnership on the Bamboo property, which would be the economic engine to run it. It would be like an economic anchor to bring people into town there.”
Running through the heart of downtown Bonita Springs, Old 41 Road attracts locals and tourists looking to explore a quaint, small town different from Fort Myers and Naples. History is alive on Old 41, apparent by a stroll past the preserved Liles Hotel—built in 1926—or the iconic Wonder Gardens sign, taking visitors back to simpler times.
Local heritage also lives at the McSwain House, a small home built in 1915 on Old 41 and given to and recently restored by the Bonita Springs Historical Society. Next door, though, only a vacant lot remains of the Wayside Inn, a two-story hotel built in 1905 and razed in 2005.
The Shell Factory burned down years ago. The orange-shaped landmark of the Dome restaurant and tavern was replaced by a 7-Eleven on the corner of Old 41 and East Terry Street. The shell of the Goodbread Grocery, later best known as the Dixie Moon Cafe, was relocated from Old 41 and Dean Street to the Riverside Park area before the Mosaic at Oak Creek apartment complex was built.
The Wonder Gardens prides itself as being the oldest-standing attraction in Bonita Springs, which proclaimed it a historic destination. Dating to the 1930s, the previously named Everglades Reptile Gardens, established by the Piper family, is a zoological and botanical site that celebrates Florida’s roadside attractions of yesteryear.
What was old is new again at Shangri-La Springs, a hotel built in 1921 by developer Harvie Heitman on 8.5 acres on the western edge of Old 41, a road that then carried Heitman’s name. The hotel’s name and ownership changed many times in the last century. Guests can enjoy stays at a historic resort that boasts visits by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, infamous gangster Al Capone and comedic actor Jackie Gleason. This spring, the boutique local resort reopened with newly furnished and renovated hotel rooms and suites, complemented by spa treatments and an organic garden and restaurant set among lush landscaping with champion trees.
Family owned and operated for decades, many local dining spots dotting Old 41 are hidden gems. Grandpa’s Pizza, which recently received national acclaim, has been creating its famous pies for more than 40 years. Buffalo Chips, an “upscale dive” restaurant and sports bar, has been serving its hot wings and cold beer for at least four decades, as well. Maria’s Restaurant, known for its authentic Mexican cuisine, opened 30 years ago in a space that formerly was The Pig & Whistle Pub. Old 41 Restaurant has served comfort food favorites for 15 years. Trackside Donuts has been a morning ritual for nearly a dozen years in a former Dairy Queen A-frame.
Joining these popular spots are newcomers such as Downtown Coffee and Wine Co. and The Bohemian Restaurant, both owned by Brandon and Caitlin Schewe, a young couple igniting fresh attention on Old 41.
“I’m originally from here, so I knew Old 41 when the only things there were pretty much Buffalo Chips or the Wonder Gardens or something in between,” says Brandon Schewe. “There’s still—and I think there always will be—lots of culture there. You see a mix. Even right there on the river off Old 41 there’s a lot of nicer homes, so you have that. You have a lot of the middle working class like myself and my wife. Our home is minutes away from Old 41, which makes it super convenient to have two businesses right there.”
The Schewes opened The Bohemian Restaurant in early March in the new Entrada building on the corner of Old 41 and Bonita Beach Road following the success of Downtown Coffee, which they opened three years ago in a building that had been vacant for about a decade. “It used to be the old Corner Store and it’s an historic building from the 1940s,” he says.
Schewe hopes other small business owners follow his lead and open local clothing boutiques and cool, trendy mom-and-pop shops. Other new local hangouts include Seaside Bar & Grill in the Bernwood Design Center on the northern end of Old 41. Chartreuse Craft Cocktail Lounge introduced its swanky 1930s vibe last year, and two local breweries, Hopsized Brewing Co. and Ceremony Brewing, both launched last November on Old 41 and already plan adjacent expansions of their businesses.
Ceremony Brewing owner Zach Smith started his quest to open the local taproom many years ago when he was still a local schoolteacher. “I live pretty much in the downtown corridor, as well, right here off Old 41,” Smith says, “so when I moved up here about 10 years ago, they were just kind of beginning the road construction. Just seeing the infrastructure that was in place and the existing businesses, it kind of had that Old Florida charm where it was inherently walkable—because when a lot of these buildings were built, they weren’t so heavily reliant on traffic and large volumes of cars and things like that, so it was built in a way that was more downtown friendly, more walkable and pedestrian friendly. I knew that unique infrastructure was going to make it a hotbed.”
As both a local resident and a business owner, Smith said it is satisfying to see people coming in and doing exactly what he had envisioned. “We’re starting to see groups walking up and down Old 41 for leisure, for exercise, patronizing the businesses. So, we’re starting to see that growth,” he says. “I think in another couple of years it will fully visualize and be this tremendous, walkable downtown district.”
The walkability is promoted by Riverside Park and its bandshell for live concerts, special events, holiday celebrations and outdoor church services. Old 41 also features two roundabouts designed to slow traffic while supporting walkability and smart growth.
Across Old 41 from the Wonder Gardens, the Imperial Crossing redevelopment project is poised to personify the city’s tagline: “Small Town Charm. Big Bright Future.” Known as the Bamboo Village property, formerly a mobile home park until the early 2000s, more than 5 acres were purchased by the city for a mixed-use, public-private partnership opportunity. Naples-based Barron Collier Companies is the developer behind the proposed Imperial Crossing project, with frontage on both sides of the Imperial River. Commercial plans for the vacant property are expected to include new apartments and public space for community events, waterfront access and open green space.
The city expects the development to be a catalyst to spur additional development and expand on the retail mix to create a vibrant, thriving downtown. To significantly support this vision, the city invested more than $20 million for on-street parking, the installation of underground electricity and stormwater improvements designed for greater flexibility in development.
Similarly, Rooftop at Riverside food truck park is planned for the corner of Old 41 and Reynolds Street. The Magnus family broke ground in May for the new venture on a half-acre plot of land across from Riverside Park. Expected to be completed in early 2023, the project will feature eight food trucks and a two-story rooftop bar that will hang over the sidewalk. “It’s going to be terrific event viewing, terrific overflow seating and really wonderful for the community to experience all the great events at Riverside Park,” says co-developer Chris Magnus.
The project will help jumpstart Bonita’s downtown, said Jesse Purdon, the city councilor for that district. “This is going to be a legacy piece. This piece right here is going to be the catalyst that starts what’s going to be our downtown,” Purdon says.
Nearby, a makeover is planned for the entire square around the historic banyan tree landmark across from Riverside Park. Plans are being considered to protect and enhance the tree, estimated to be more than 100 years old. “What a great idea it would be to light it up at night and to really show off the tree and the magnificence of it for the community,” says Derrick Botana, president of the city’s Historical Society.
More new businesses will be coming soon to Entrada and the Causeway Commerce Park, both Old 41 developments started by investor James Deagle and Steve Hovland of Hovland Real Estate. Entrada expanded on the old First National Bank of Bonita Springs, while the Causeway redevelopment project started with the purchase of the old Causeway Lumber Co., which closed in 2009 after operating for more than 30 years. The development of about 120,000 square feet of commercial property on nearly 9 acres is the duo’s first big project. “The Causeway Commerce Park is a four-lot land condominium. My partner and I own the two south lots; we sold the north two lots,” Hovland says.
“We wanted to build something modern, and that’s why we picked Old 41—because the zoning was flexible with the industrial zoning,” Hovland continues. Tenants include one-of-a-kind local businesses CRU Wine Bar and Grumpy Goat Coffee. “We’ve got an eyelash gal. We’ve got a photographer. We have every business you can imagine at Causeway,” he says. “It’s really neat to see the new workforce and what kind of neat and cool, funky businesses that they’re doing.”
Two of the 22 units in the first building they developed are called The Causeway, set to open soon. “It’s going to be a beer hall that’s better than a food truck place because it’s all air-conditioned,” Hovland says.
Old 41 stretches slightly more than a mile south of Bonita Beach Road to the Collier County line, curving west to meet U.S. 41 North in North Naples. The stretch south of Bonita Beach Road, functioning mostly as an industrial park area, needs to be widened to four lanes with sidewalks, said former Mayor Nelson. “The government entities have really dropped the ball by not following through with the plans, and there are plans,” he says. “Collier and Bonita Springs are going to have to work together on that to make that connectivity.”
Cut-through traffic also needs to be discouraged through the redevelopment area of the historic part of Old 41 by improving and creating alternative routes as outlined in the city’s comprehensive plan, Nelson said. “The Old 41 redevelopment area in the downtown district has to be a destination, not a place to drive through,” he says, “or you can’t have that kind of development. You can’t have that walkable community.”
Nelson believes the sense of community and small-town charm can be retained and downtown businesses can thrive there. “What you want to do is create a place where there’s internal capture, a place where the people who live there work there. They go to the stores there. You also become an attractor for restaurants and entertainment and stuff. It’s doable; it’s all doable with the infrastructure that we have there, if you give the opportunities for the traffic to go other ways to get around that. The future looks bright for it still. I think there’s so much hope, so much that can happen there in a positive way.”