It’s a Thursday afternoon, not quite 5 p.m., And the parking lot is already full. Cars circle like vultures desperate for a sign of a soon-tobe empty space. There’s extra parking up the street at a shopping plaza that’s never really busy, but everyone at least tries to find a close-in spot first.
All the bar seats and picnic tables are full. So, you make your way to the seawall along Haldeman Creek, where a few patches of elevated concrete remain unclaimed. Then you send out the scouts for food and drink, carefully guarding your precious seating.
Welcome to Celebration Park: part food truck Valhalla, part chickee bar. For the last few months, it’s been the hottest destination in Naples thanks to its novel concept and consistently delicious offerings ranging from burgers to baklava. It’s a gathering place for birthdays, bachelorette outings, office happy hours and any other reason people can think of to go out with a group.
It’s a refreshing new space in a town always looking for the next big thing. But it isn’t on U.S. 41 or a major thoroughfare. It’s on Bayshore Drive—a place that, despite being only a stone’s throw from some of the priciest real estate in Southwest Florida, was not too long ago synonymous with the worst aspects of life in paradise.
“I really think this is the SoHo of Naples,” says Rebecca Maddox, owner of Celebration Park and the neighboring Three60 Market. “It’s a little bit funky. A little bit cool. Definitely different than Fifth Avenue [South] and Third Street [South].”
Meet someone who has lived in Naples for a more than a few decades and he or she is likely to remember when Bayshore Drive was Kelly Road. The memories are likely not going to be positive. Long before Naples Botanical Garden became a destination of choice for more than 300,000 Neapolitans and visitors each year, Kelly Road was a destination of a different sort.
“Kelly Road had gone all to hell,” Jim King, a longtime resident of the area, once told the Naples Daily News. “Back then, if you went to Kelly Road, it was to buy drugs or get a prostitute, or that was what people were led to believe.”
That impression lasted long after the name changed to Bayshore Drive in the 1990s. When I moved to Naples in 2003, I asked fellow reporters at the Naples Daily News if there were any places in town I should avoid when not out for a story. Bayshore was the only area consistently mentioned
It’s a reputation that dies hard. When asked about it nearly 20 years later, Debra Forester, head of the Collier County Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), says Bayshore’s bad rep remains in the back of people’s minds because people continue to want to talk about how far the area has come.
“It would stop if people like you didn’t write about it,” Forester told me when I asked.
Her frustration is understandable. Formed in 2000, the Bayshore Gateway Triangle CRA has been working tirelessly to leverage government and community funding to buy distressed properties in the area, make needed infrastructure improvements, complete beautification projects and promote development in swath of land that includes all of Bayshore Drive
Since she took over the role in 2017, Forester has seen tremendous growth in the area. New condominium communities are underway on both sides of the street near the botanical garden. New single-family homes are being built down side streets and along the canals. A jewelry designer, craft brewery and a popcorn company have all put down roots. It feels like there is finally the critical mass of development to make the decades-old dream of a new must-visit section of coastal Collier a reality.
At the center of it all is Maddox, who for the past 10 years has been perhaps its biggest advocate.
Maddox came to Bayshore almost by accident. One day on a boat trip along Haldeman Creek, she spotted the location that would be her first Bayshore business, Three60 Market. It was a long-closed dive bar along the water.
“People considered it a bad area, but I just saw the potential of people sitting on the water enjoying themselves with food and drink,” Maddox remembers. “People thought I was crazy.”
Maddox had enjoyed a long, successful career as an executive in real estate, insurance and banking. She lived in Philadelphia but was tired of the cold. She came to Naples for good during the economic downturn in 2008 as she was transitioning to a new phase in her life. Although her focus had been in residential real estate, she felt confident in her ability to redevelop the space into something special.
“It took me nearly two years to get it opened,” she says of Three60 Market. “We closed in July 2010 and opened in May 2012.”
In the interim, she discovered there were buried gas tanks from an old marina and that a good deal of environmental remediation was required. In the end, what she thought would be a simple renovation turned into a bigger project.
Sitting in the small indoor dining area at Three60 Market, Maddox points out a boat making its way to her little corner of paradise. She noted that in the early days she saw maybe two or three boats in a week. Now, the traffic is nearly nonstop. They are likely coming to dock at Celebration Park.
In some ways, the bustling food truck park was an even bolder bet than a restaurant was. The concept was entirely foreign to the community and, really, to most areas. Now, Maddox says she has people coming from all over the country to study what she’s done and build their own parks.
And she’s not finished. She has secured 1.5 acres across Bayshore from Celebration Park to build a Napa-style wine tasting room. It will host tastings that she can’t host at Three60 Market’s wine shop for lack of space. The wine shop itself wasn’t part of the original plan, but then Naples Botanical Garden opened its own on-site restaurant.
“I was looking at from a business perspective and thinking, ‘OK, I’m going to take a hit,’” Maddox says. “So, I decided to sell wine to make up the difference. Now, we are the third-largest seller of Groth in the country.”
Her enterprises are so successful that she joked that she’s surprised she hasn’t gotten a buyout offer yet.
“I’m just waiting for Hoffman to come by,” she says of the family who have bought about $300 million in downtown Naples real estate and several hospitality-related businesses in the past few years.
In all seriousness, she feels the one thing Bayshore is missing is a few “movers and shakers,” people with serious capital, to come in and invest in the area.
“There are people in town who could change everything if they wanted to,” she says.
In some ways, it could be Maddox who changes everything. Right now, she’s the only developer working on putting together a serious proposal for the last jewel in Bayshore’s development crown—a 17-acre parcel that butts up against Sugden Park. But Maddox isn’t the first developer to take a stab at it. And she’s certainly not the first person to dream of big things there.
Almost since the inception of the CRA, a small but dedicated group of people have dreamed of the property as the home for East Naples’ own performing arts hall. Imagine if Artis—Naples were more community theater and local performers than touring Broadway productions and legendary artists. Ostensibly, the construction of said hall was the reason for the founding of what was then known as the Bayshore Cultural and Performing Arts Center, now known as CAPA.
Until recently, every proposal that went before the county commissioners about the property seemed to be built on the idea that someone could build a mini Mercato, and then find other people to fund a $40 million or $50 million arts center. None of those proposals made it far enough for the county to sell someone the land. In April, CRA advisory board chairman Maurice Gutierrez proposed an arts center only, with leftover land to be dedicated to greenspace. The Naples Daily News reported at least two commissioners lent their approval to the concept. But Commissioner Burt Saunders said he would need to know the money is there to develop the project before the county could part with the land.
With Artis—Naples, Gulfshore Playhouse and other arts groups undertaking massive multi-year capital campaigns to build or improve facilities, there are some who question whether there is enough desire and money to fund yet another large arts project. At the same time, the county is undertaking a community arts study to help provide a guide to arts organizations and government about what kinds of facilities and arts programs are needed.
For her part, Maddox is still moving forward with a dream of a center full of artists’ studios, boutiques and creative entrepreneurs. Her development plans for the property involve finding someone to donate the bulk of the land—about 11 acres—to Florida Gulf Coast University to create a laboratory to study wetlands. The rest would be entirely commercial space, unlike previous plans that called for mixed-use development and often got hung up on issues like the number of units that could be classified as “affordable.”
Collier County Commissioner Penny Taylor says this type of thinking is what will continue to make Bayshore thrive.
“Free enterprise has led the way,” she says. “The CRA and the [Tourist Development Council] helped build out some of the infrastructure, but this has really been about people believing in Bayshore. People like [Maddox] had a vision of what Bayshore could be.”
Taylor is quick to mention business owner Amanda Jaron, who moved her A.Jaron fine jewelry brand to Bayshore after years near one of the busiest intersections in Naples—Pine Ridge Road and U.S. 41. Jaron echoed Maddox’s reference to SoHo in an April interview in this magazine. She doesn’t want things to get too commercial or overly engineered.
“My vision for this area is for it to stay eclectic and authentic … not turn it into another preplanned community,” she says in the interview.
Bayshore has felt on the cusp before. Just before the financial crisis and the Great Recession toppled its momentum in the mid-2000s, there was a sense that the CRA’s work had caused the area to turn a corner.
Several longtime businesses were thriving. Sawyer Outboard Service was booming. The Green Door Nursery was growing. And people came from all over town for ultra-authentic tacos from Taqueria San Julian.
For a time in 2007, the Bayshore Coffee Company was one of the few places in town to hear serious local musicians playing original music. It launched bands like Little Eddie and the Fat Fingers and Monroe Station into locally relevant acts.
Naples 701 was a newly renovated and rebranded apartment complex for young professionals for whom the grittier nature of the street formerly known as Kelly Road was more of a feature than a bug.
Some of the businesses survived the downturn. Others weren’t so lucky. Bayshore Coffee Company moved, changed owners and then closed within 2 years. Several redevelopment projects got put on hold or sputtered out. It’s really only been in the past two or three years that the Bayshore dream has started coming back.
That’s how long Adam Kelley has been trying to launch his Ankrolab Brewing Company next door to San Julian. After searching all of Collier and into Lee County, he determined the location on Bayshore was the only viable option. And even that wasn’t guaranteed.
“We had one neighbor file a complaint,” he says. “And that really set us back.”
Ahead of his opening this spring, Kelley understands that projects like his aren’t happening in a vacuum; that his success could drive other people out of business.
“The market is always going to dictate that,” he says. “If some people leave because there is more money in another project, that’s part of how the economy works.”
That’s the delicate balance of any redevelopment plan. There’s one side trying to do what it considers good work to improve the quality of a community. And there’s another that is always leery of what changes might mean.
But so far, the crush of growth has been good for everyone. Maddox says the owners of the Real McCaw, a Key West-inspired restaurant that has called Bayshore home for decades, sent her flowers after Celebration Park opened. The rising tide of interest is lifting all boats.
“Businesses like San Julian aren’t going under any time soon because of what is happening,” Kelley says. “I’ve never seen their parking lot busier.”