Technically, Mike Flanders is the new guy on staff, the recently appointed CEO of the Edison & Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers. In actuality, though, Flanders has been part of the estate’s story for decades—as a neighbor, a consulting architect and a city councilor overseeing the public funds that went its way.
Flanders spent nearly 20 years on the Fort Myers City Council, representing Ward 4, which includes the estates. Between 2003 and 2017, he also served as a consulting architect during the property’s restoration and improvement projects. (In taking the CEO job, he has stepped down from public office and is closing his architecture firm.)
The Edison & Ford Winter Estates is one of the nation’s 10 most-visited historic homes, with 260,000 visitors each year. It has 90 employees, more than 250 volunteers and sits on 20 acres along the Caloosahatchee River near downtown Fort Myers.
Flanders has grand ideas for the property’s future, though he’s starting his visioning process by considering its past. He seeks to follow the wishes of Edison’s wife, Mina, who donated the property to the city in 1947, and stay consistent with Thomas Edison and Henry Ford’s passions for botanical research and invention.
“It is extremely important to understand the history of a town and of a community to create an even better future for that town,” Flanders says. Fort Myers, he knows, is protective of its history. As a former public official, he understands that community buy-in is key.
One of his first goals is to develop a 6-acre plot adjacent to the estates. In the early 1990s, the city bought the parcel with the intent to develop it with facilities that would support the estates, but has yet to put money into it. Mina Edison had expressed hope the parcel would become a public park. Flanders says the grounds of the estates already are a civic and community center, with plant sales and small concerts, but he sees the potential for more.
“My eyes are wide open looking at all these possibilities, and my passion is to always improve,” Flanders says.
Flanders says his training as an architect helps him understand the needs of the space. He’s relied on his profession plenty of times before—his architectural eye allowed him to consider a major downtown revitalization project undertaken during his council tenure, for example, through different vantage points.
“I had several council members lean across the table and say, ‘Mike, you see things we don’t see,’” he says. “It’s totally because of the architectural background.”
Now at the estates, Flanders and his team are drafting a master plan for the 6 acres that includes educational buildings, administrative offices, and space for more public gatherings and after-hours events. He also envisions a public library that would house the botanical research and information compiled at the estates, and would fulfill another dream that Mina included in her donation, Flanders says.
Some decisions are based on demand. Registration for the nine-week 2018 summer program opened in January and was full by February with 302 students. Some choose to attend one week and others several weeks. He estimates the program has enough interest for two or three more classes.
“We don’t have any classrooms. We have their classes in the museum or on the grounds,” Flanders says.
He expects to present the master plan to the city by summer 2019 for approval. Knowing from experience the kind of information elected officials, city staff and residents will want before agreeing to anything related to the hisoric property, he’ll be armed with plenty of sketches, renderings and supporting documents.
Timing also can be everything. Now that the main elements of the estates are in stable condition, Flanders says he believes his design expertise and know-how in navigating the political system can help set up the estates for the long term.
He thinks about the first time he visited the estates as an elementary school child and how his career and public-service experience have given him the tools to come back— and help the landmark continue to flourish for schoolkids and adults alike.
“It just happens to be the right timing for a guy like me with my credentials and background to fit into those goals,” he says.