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Old U.S. 41’s southernmost stretch in Bonita Springs provides the foundation for an old-fashioned downtown—two-lane road; big shade trees; public park and amphitheater; arched lampposts; a kitschy roadside attraction; historic hotel; ice cream parlors; a bait shop for creek-side fishing.

But if you were to drive through it, you probably wouldn’t identify the area as a downtown at all. “Going downtown” implies that you’ll get out of your car and explore shops, cafés and services and that your excursion will take some time because there’s much to see and do.

That’s not the case right now—the businesses are few in number and rather scattered, so that if you were to peruse them, you’d spend much of your time strolling past vacant lots rather than admiring window displays.

City leaders are trying to put some flesh on that sturdy skeleton.

A $16 million redevelopment project years in the making is expected to break ground this summer, and leaders hope the effort will transform the just under-a-mile strip between Tennessee.

The downtown dream began even before incorporation, and its early steps happened soon after. Inaugural leaders spent $16 million on initiatives such as land banking and creating Riverside Park, which now hosts events every weekend during season. Developers, including the late Jack Antaramian, proposed some major projects there, only to abandon them when the recession hit. Privatesector interest never rekindled.

“The thought was if you have good park facilities and you attract events, then you attract people. And then, of course, if you attract people, then the private sector wakes up and they say, ‘This is someplace we need to be.’ Unfortunately, it didn’t work that way,” Schwing says.

You can hardly blame the developers. To build along Old U.S. 41, Schwing explains, developers must set aside some 40 to 50 percent of their property for storm water retention and parking. Nor can business owners enjoy the economies of scale that come with larger parcels, notes Dennis Gilkey, CEO of the Gilkey Organization and former CEO of the Bonita Bay Group.

The city started offering incentives, including waiving impact fees on new construction and offering business owners facade and landscape grants. But officials realized they needed to make some bigger commitments and entered into a financing deal with the county, which will pay 50 percent of the cost and debt service.

The redevelopment project includes:

» New municipal parking lots and street parking

» A centralized storm water retention system

» Two roundabouts to slow traffic

» Buried utilities, landscaped medians, park

benches and related beautification efforts

» Wide sidewalks

» Bridges over the Imperial River and Oak Creek that are widened for pedestrian/ bicycle use and opened up so that passersby can overlook the water

“People will be able to build downtown.You couldn’t before,” says Mayor Ben Nelson. He did establish a small business on Old 41, the Survey Cafe, which is thriving and has since sold to a new owner. But the business climate can be challenging, he says.

The city hit the right buttons for one developer. EBL Partners of North Naples has purchased a 1-acre parcel at Old 41, Hampton Street and Felts Avenue. The company will construct “Longitude,” a mixed-use development featuring 48 one- and two-bedroom condominiums and 15,000 square feet of retail space.

“I always thought maybe here was a good opportunity for someone who wants to live in Southwest Florida and doesn’t want to live on a golf course,” says Paul Benson, managing partner.

The condos are upscale with a coastal living flair.

“There is a huge opportunity for Bonita Springs to have an urban, downtown environment similar to what happened in Naples,” Benson says.

The city has hired Gibbs Planning Group of Michigan to do a market study and identify the kinds of businesses that would do well in downtown Bonita so that it can recruit other businesses and developers to invest along Old 41, Schwing says. It’s also looking for a developer for the former Bamboo Village mobile home park site, which it purchased once Antaramian’s proposed development fell through.

The Bonita Springs Area Chamber of Commerce dispatched its young professionals group to meet with city leaders and property owners and offer their take on an ideal downtown. Chamber CEO Christine Ross says they’re seeking a more urban environment that appeals to their age group. “They said if you make it look like a gated community, we won’t go there,” Ross says. She thinks the redevelopment will be a boon to local businesses once the project dust settles.

Meanwhile, two private projects promise to draw additional attention to downtown: the Everglades Wonder Gardens, which has recently shifted from family ownership to a nonprofit; and the historic Shangri-La Springs, a 1920s hotel that reopened as an organic wellness center under new ownership in 2011 and continues to expand programming and restoration efforts. City leaders are supportive of both projects; they even offered a $3.5 million loan for the Wonder Gardens purchase.

“We needed to make sure it would stay open,” says Schwing. The property, which turns 80 next year, is a lush botanical garden and animal rescue that was once a must-see for motorists traveling the Tamiami Trail.

Also on the radar is a proposed new Bonita Springs library, replacing the branch library near West Terry Street with a new facility on Felts in the downtown corridor.

“For the city, it is a very exciting time,” says Councilwoman Janet Martin, who is also the newly named executive director of the Wonder Gardens. “I’ve been carrying the pompoms saying some day this will happen, and it’s finally happening.”

The city has not set financial benchmarks or economic expectations for the redevelopment project, Schwing says. Those benefits are anticipated, but the primary motivators had more to do with quality of life and defining Bonita’s identity.

The project hasn’t been universally embraced. Lengthy public meetings have been dedicated to answering concerns about the impacts of the roundabouts, pedestrian safety and even the fate of downtown events (Nelson says the road changes won’t affect traditions such as the annual Independence Day parade).

John Paeno, owner of CGT Kayaks, had a number of concerns early in the project—initial blueprints had wiped out the alleyway leading to his parking lot, eliminated four of the six parking spaces out front and made access to the shop more cumbersome. But, he says, city leaders addressed each issue and re-drafted the project to alleviate the problems. Paeno has done business in Bonita for about nine years; last November, he took the major step of consolidating his Lee County operations and opening the shop by Riverside Park.

“We love it. Talk about a great location by the river. Perfect place, great community, great people, and now they’re going to invest [nearly] $17 million in making it nicer. These are great things,” he says.

Others see similar potential. Property owner Tina Schucklat Boole, a Bonita Springs native, was among the first business owners to take advantage of the city’s facade grants to enhance her properties.

“I’m really anxious for the streetscape to be changed, and I think that’s when it’s really going to take off,” she says. The project, she believes, will create a vibrant downtown community.

Gilkey says the project’s success hinges on public-private involvement. He is trying to rekindle a downtown business owners association to ensure the private sector has a voice as the redevelopment moves forward.

“There needs to be a communication vehicle and generally the downtown association is the one to do it,” Gilkey says.

 He also wants the city to look beyond infrastructure and do its part in marketing downtown’s businesses and attractions. “These businesses are small; they can’t do it themselves,” he says.

Jim Wright, the project manager from Wright Construction, says he expects to break ground this month. The project will take from 18 months to two years, constructed in two- to three-block increments so as to minimize disruptions. Traffic will be rerouted along side streets running parallel to Old 41, and access to existing businesses will be maintained, Powell says.

Nelson acknowledges that construction may be painful up front, but he sees great things for his city as downtown matures.

“Ten years from now once all the dust has settled, I think you’ll be amazed,” he says. GB


‘New’ Embracing the ‘Old’ 
Two historic Bonita Springs downtown properties get spruced up.

Bonita Springs leaders are excited by the prospect of the “new” coming to their downtown, but they know part of the area’s allure is rooted in the “old.”

Nestled along the waterfront, two historic attractions—the Everglades Wonder Gardens and Shangri-La Springs—are undergoing transformations in tandem with the downtown redevelopment. Their successes could provide two more reasons to come downtown.

“We’re trying to grow the attraction back to what it used to be,” says Janet Martin, the newly named executive director of the Wonder Gardens, recently purchased by a nonprofit organization formed to save it from being snatched by private developers.

The Piper family established the 3.5-acre property as a tourist stop 79 years ago in the golden era of roadside attractions. The Pipers grew it into a botanical garden and mini-wildlife refuge for injured animals.

On a sultry June morning, college-aged volunteers were cleaning out an area to turn into an expanded alligator pond and guides were leading tours. Photographer John Brady, who’d stepped in to run the gardens between the Pipers’ exit and the sale to the nonprofit, was lining a mucky trail with crushed shells.

“There’s huge potential,” Martin says. “It just goes on and on.”

She and the nonprofit board won’t bring back the larger mammals once kept there—there’s not enough space to house animals according to today’s standards—but they’ll continue to care for rescue animals like Winnie, the 42-year-old macaw, Casey the Cockatoo and the gators taken from farms.

Otherwise, former animal enclosures will turn into elements like an extended aviary or gardens.

But the old-timey flavor of the place will stay, from the vintage sign out front to Big Joe, the famed 1,200-pound crocodile (or at least the taxidermy version of him).

“We heard from so many residents—you have to save this, it’s iconic. It is Bonita Springs,” Martin says.

A few blocks away, Shangri-La Springs offers a different slice of history. The Heitman family constructed the building in 1921 as a hotel for prospective property buyers. Later, an osteopath, Dr. Charles Gnau, began touting the health benefits of the property’s mineral spring, the impetus behind the name “Bonita Springs.” It’s been a wellness center in some form ever since.

Its current co-owner, Heather Burch, had been visiting Shangri-La since 1974, a place where she could grow her interest in natural health.

“It became my home away from home,” she says.

 She and fellow owner Addison Fischer bought the property in 1998 and opened it for private functions in 2011. Then, about a year and a half ago, they started going full throttle on new programming designed for the public.

“We really felt it was something the community wanted access to,” Burch says.

Shangri-La springs offers classes in yoga, Qigong, meditation and other mind-body disciplines. It serves organic lunch daily and will begin offering breakfast and dinner in coming months. Much of the produce is grown on the grounds, Burch says.

An Art and Nature series held the first Wednesday of every month offers art shows, artist receptions, live music and a community drum circle; tours are offered daily; a Lunch and Learn series exposes guests to new ideas.

“It’s great to see folks who have never explored some of this come in and open up,” Burch says. The next big project: re-opening the natural mineral bath once Burch can certify that it’s chemical-free.

She’s glad Shangri-La Springs can be part of a growing downtown area; in fact, she is seeing natural and holistic businesses opening nearby, following the property’s resurgence.

“Our hope was that we could support the community,” she says. 
—Jennifer Reed


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