The Bonita Springs Fire Department closed a $6 million deal with the owners of Big Hickory Waterfront Grille & Marina on Tuesday to purchase the property that served as a restaurant for Bonita Beach visitors for decades. The property also includes a commercial center with a Bonita Springs Fire Department substation.
Both buildings suffered extensive damage due to Hurricane Ian. Big Hickory Waterfront Grille owner Traci Kautzman decided against rebuilding because of what she said is a lack of support from the city of Bonita Springs.
Kautzman purchased the restaurant in January 2020 and immediately wanted to get to work by increasing seating capacity and acquiring a full liquor license. That’s when she learned about a limited review development order established by the previous restaurant owner in 2008 to improve parking lot conditions, installing brick pavers in the dining area and moving the restaurant sign from the right-of-way back onto the property. The owners of the restaurant didn’t follow through with the permit besides installing some of the brick pavers before selling the property to Kautzman.
Despite the permit being expired, Bonita Springs Community Development Director John Dulmer explained it’s impossible to get rid of the permit entirely.
“I informed them that I don’t have the authority to waive it, but what I do want to do is work with them on amending it,” Dulmer said. “So if they have thoughts on how they want this to work a little bit better, I’m happy to work with them. And if they have different ideas on how they want to handle parking or how they want to handle the access, I would be open to listening to what they had to say.”
Kautzman explained she attempted to build a deck by the shore area and obtain a pergola to shade some of the seating after purchasing the property, but those permit requests were denied.
“From the get-go, they have been very unreasonable to deal with,” Kautzman said. “Just trying to find any kind of reason that they can to deny us any progress of improving the property.”
When Hurricane Ian hit in September, Big Hickory Waterfront Grille experienced major flooding and lost all its furniture and equipment along with much of the structure. Two weeks after the storm, Kautzman scheduled a meeting with Dulmer to discuss what can be done to revive the restaurant.
“We opened the meeting very cordially of, ‘Hey, this has been a real tragedy for the whole community. Can we at least agree that this issue of the 2008 [limited review development order] can just be put to rest? It doesn’t seem like 15-year-old pavers is the worst problem we’ve got going on right now,’” Kautzman said.
She received a budget of around $200,000 to reconstruct the ground level due to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 50% rule. The rule states that if a building was built in compliance at the time it was constructed, half of the value of the structure based on appraisal can be used to rebuild without bringing the entire structure into compliance.
“Her contractor and her designer said that they understood what we were saying and said that they were going to go back and try to go to work on finding a way to rebuild the building under the 50% rule,” Dulmer said.
Under FEMA regulations, Kautzman could spend her own money to raise the finished floor elevation to bring the structure into compliance. However, in effort to maintain the character of how the restaurant once was, Kautzman didn’t want to pursue the multimillion-dollar project of building on stilts.
“We’ve been there for 50 years, that’s what people come to our restaurant for, to sit by the water,” Kautzman said. “They don’t want to be up 10 feet in the air and it’s hard to run a restaurant 10 feet up in the air with your deliveries and everything else. [The city] did say that we had the option of submitting them plans to rebuild as long as we were up on stilts. But again, they would not give us any guarantee that they would even approve that plan.”
After calculating that it would take much more than $200,000 to get Big Hickory Waterfront Grille back to the way it once was, the decision was made to sell the property to the Bonita Springs Fire Department. However, if it were up to Kautzman, she would have it another way.
“It was almost a $5 million business. How do we just walk away from that in one day without even letting us regain our livelihood back?” Kautzman said. “We’re not asking the city for any money, we didn’t ask FEMA for any money. We want to spend our own money to fix up our place, our property that we own. You’d think in America that would be allowed.”
Dulmer said that there is nothing the city can do to go around FEMA permitting laws.
“The rules are the rules,” Dulmer said. “And if someone has the ability to work within the rules, I’m happy to work with them to accomplish that.”
The Bonita Springs Fire Department started searching for a place on Big Hickory Island to put a fire station in 2016 to increase its response times which at that point was 13 to 15 minutes. That’s when they made a deal with the previous owners of Big Hickory Waterfront Grille and acquired a 99-year lease on the adjacent commercial building and was granted first right of refusal. The substation, before Hurricane Ian, housed on lieutenant and two firefighters at all times with response times being cut in half.
When Kautzman made the decision to sell the property, she set the price for $6 million. The fire department bought it at full asking price along with the cleanup fees. Fire Chief Greg DeWitt said he has no intentions of tearing down what is left of the restaurant.
“Our sole goal is to get our fire station back up and get the rescue business back on Hickory Island,” DeWitt said.
Having the substation near the water has proven to be effective in terms of serving the community, as the department has had access to one boat slip on the property. “Our boat responses are one of the best in the county because we are one of the only stations with boats on the water and maintained with a station by it,” DeWitt said.
DeWitt is now weighing options on what can be done with the property, and would consider obtaining a private appraisal to be granted more money to build in the future.
“We have no intentions of tearing it down and making them condos. We have no intentions of tearing it down and make it into a parking lot. We have no intentions of running a marina out of it,” he said. “We haven’t even spoke to the city about being partners or making it a city dock. I’ve heard all these different things and we’ve had none of those conversations whatsoever. Truly, our only conversation has been with the community development to get us back in the rescue business.”
Although it is uncertain what will replace Big Hickory Waterfront Grille & Marina, locals such as Shelley Kolankiewicz are sad to see the local restaurant gone for good.
“Big Hickory Grille was a place that you could enjoy the waterfront. Whenever I had any visitors come to town, family, guests, I always took people or sent people to Big Hickory because it was really the one place [in Bonita Springs] that you could enjoy that peaceful, waterfront view [on Estero Bay],” Kolankiewicz said. “It had a nice patio. You could sit out there and enjoy fresh local seafood and enjoy that waterfront. And to think that’s going to be gone is just devastating.”
Kautzman said it is a shame the city appeared it couldn’t do more to save the historic local restaurant.
“They can sit there and put the red stamp saying no-go on rebuilding, but how many lives are they affecting by that,” Kautzman said. “People have worked there and that’s been the only job they’ve had for 20 years. And all the customers, there’s been thousands of families that look forward to coming into our place for vacations or birthdays and holidays.”