■ BY SUE ERWIN
As 2016 draws to an end we like to take a look back at the some of the major stories that sparked headlines in the Boca Beacon this year.
An historic moment was commemorated on Tuesday, January 5, 2016 when the new swing bridge opened to traffic for the first time. The new 22-foot tall bridge, which had been under construction since August 2012, has four traffic gates and a four-foot shoulder on each side. The project took more than three years to complete.
In February, the Barrier Island Parks Society announced they were in the final stages of a licensing agreement with the United States Coast Guard to transfer the Rear Island Range Light – now officially renamed as the “Gasparilla Island Light” – to island control after 89 years of ownership by the Department of Defense.
The restoration project is expected to be finished in early January. The Gasparilla Island Conservation and Improvement Association (GICIA) embarked on a fundraising campaign in 2015, in an effort to raise enough funds to purchase the 30-acre Mercabo property at the entrance to Gasparilla Island. On January 29, 2016, GICIA closed on the purchase after raising $20.6M cash in seven short weeks.
Demolition started of the Old Mercabo Conference Center in July and was completed in August. The vision was to prevent development at the gateway to Boca Grande and transform the property into a natural wildlife sanctuary. Agenda item 26. That was the rather innocuous name of a precedent- setting topic of discussion for Lee County Commissioners on Tuesday, Nov. 1. Agenda Item 26 was Gilchrist Avenue parking, and commissioners would be voting on a final plan, thereby hopefully putting a very well-worn controversy to rest. The proposal included the addition of 66 palm trees along Gilchrist between 1st and 5th Streets. A change in project price (palm tree replacement fell below $100,000) meant no vote was needed by county commissioners. The item was stricken from the agenda, and the trees were subsequently planned in November.
Seagate Development contractors began work in August at the new Hill Tide Estates, located at the southern tip of the island. Developers are constructing 19 island-inspired luxury home sites with harbor, pass, and beach views of the Gulf of Mexico. An onsite information center opened this past week at the site. Hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Sundays from noon to 4 p.m.
Dr. Hank Wright passed away at 92 at his home on Monday, May 16, 2016. Dr. Wright was a driving force in the Boca Grande Health Clinic that we know today. Memorial services were held in November.
A blessing of the animals Island church leaders hosted an ecumenical blessing of the animals ceremony at the Boca Grande Dog Park on Sunday, Jan. 17. The event was open to all.
Dabo vs. Nick Two of Boca Grande’s finest were down on the field at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona for the big game between Clemson and the Crimson Tide. Head Coaches Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban are both property owners on the island.
A time for feasting The 14th annual Taste of Boca Grande was held on February 1 at the Boca Bay Pass Club. Attendees were able to sample foods form 19 different restaurants. The event helps raise money for the Harry Chapin Food Back of Southwest Florida. Watkins and Major retain seats on GIBA Board Ginger Watkins and Lee Majors retain their seats as chairman and co-chairman of the Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority, as a vote was cast at the board’s quarterly meeting in February.
Zika, red tide and brown water … oh, my Lee County confirmed two cases of the Zika virus in February and Red Tide was present for several weeks at a time in 2015. And although the state increased flows of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee, the Caloosahatchee had a good amount of muddy brown water from the run-off. Fortunately, the water is Boca Grande remains pristine.
Mercabo purchase a done deal The Gasparilla Island Conservation and Improvement Association successfully purchased the Mercabo 30-acre tract at the entrance to the Boca Grande Causeway. The outpouring of support from Gasparilla Island residents and the surrounding communities was unprecedented, exceeding more than 1,100 donors, including several island nonprofits.
On Friday, Feb. 12, the last piece of steel was removed from the old swing bridge, and with it a significant piece of Gasparilla Island’s history turned into lore. Range Light renovation project getting closer
In February, the Barrier Island Parks Society announced they are in the final stages of a licensing agreement with the United States Coast Guard to transfer the Rear Island Range Light – now officially renamed as the “Gasparilla Island Light” – to island control after 89 years of ownership by the Department of Defense. The tale of the too-heavy tour bus brings weight restriction conversation back into spotlight On Tuesday, March 2 it was beautiful weather for a walk but not necessarily for a group of elderly travelers who were making a pilgrimage to an island church. The town was abuzz with rumors that GIBA workers had turned the tour bus from All Around Charters and Tours away. What the townspeople who witnessed the incident didn’t know was that it was not a Bridge Authority representative who told the bus driver to make his passengers walk.
A Lee County announced a resurfacing roadway improvement project will include improving roadways in Boca Grande starting this summer. The project wrapped up in late December. Coast Guard rescues two fishermen after boat sinks The Coast Guard rescued two St. Petersburg fishermen after their 37-foot boat sank 52 miles northwest of Boca Grande on March 7, 2016. Both men were reportedly uninjured.
At an educational summit held on Tuesday, April 5 at the Boca Grande Community Center, some of the nation’s top educators gathered with islanders to talk about new trends and successful techniques in educating our primary and secondary school-age children. Keynote speakers were some of the most prestigious leaders in the field of education.
The Woman’s Club announced more than $649,000 in donations this year. At their Annual Meeting held on Monday April 4, The Boca Grande Woman’s Club announced that the grand total of their 2016 community grants and scholarships is $649,600.
The Boca Grande Health Clinic annual fundraiser festivities began with a ball drop and ended with the Hank Wright Golf Tournament held on April 8. More than $350,000 was raised.
On Wednesday, April 13 two members of island royalty exchanged vows of marriage. King David “Smitty” Smith and Queen Lynda “Boo” Lancaster were married by the Honorable Nat Italiano, while a few of their close friends witnessed the nuptials.
Approximately 500 cyclists came spinning down Gasparilla Road on Thursday, April 14. The event was organized and sponsored by Bike Florida. Additional law enforcement were available that day, and the event didn’t have much effect on the island.
The Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority announced at its quarterly board meeting in April that it would be implementing a trial exception period for overweight trucks, which brought about a debate one board member likened to “opening Pandora’s box.”
A Body of boater missing in local waters found A boater missing in local waters since late April was discovered in Charlotte Harbor near Burnt Store Marina on Sunday, May 1. The Sheriff’s office dive team retrieved the body of a male who was later confirmed to be 62-year-old Jim Winkler of North Port.
Tarpon Tourney season starts with Lamar Jr. Ladies Day Ladies Day 2016 proved to be a great time for Capt. Lamar Joiner Jr. and his team on Searene, and the night yielded 11 releases and one fish in a boat. The tournament, held on Saturday, May 7 in Boca Grande Pass, had a field of 36 boats this year.
Capt. Waylon and his team take first in Howlin’ Tourney Tarpon were rolling in every direction as the sun was setting on the day of Friday, May 13 … and they were hungry. 17 teams participated in the annual Howl at the Moon Tarpon Tournament. The team aboard Capt. Waylon Mills’ boat Blaze took first at the end of the night with four good releases.
The Island Doctor’ has left us: Dr. Hank Wright passes away at 92 Dr. Hank Wright passed away at 92 at his home on Monday, May 16, 2016. Dr. Wright was a driving force in the Boca Grande Health Clinic that we know today. Services were held in November.
The Barrier Island Parks Society (BIPS) reported in May that thus far the fundraising for the Gasparilla Island Light restoration project has brought in $1,068,000 in gifts and pledges. Larry Hannah, BIPS director and chair of the fundraising effort, said that more than 350 individual gifts have propelled efforts to 60 percent of reaching the goal of $1,783,000 to complete all the work on the structure, the cleanup and maintenance of the property.
Sundown puts the rest to bed at World’s Richest. Capt. Timmy Smith and his team, including Team Leader John Judson, angler Justin Davis, angler Joel Trost and angler Will Bonner, had four releases on the first day, placing them ahead of tournament fishing. Capt. Frank Davis and his team on Native were in second place with three releases. In all there were 24 releases on that first day of fishing. Sundown team took the first place prize with seven releases during the two-day tournament and Capt. Waylon and his team on Blaze took second with six releases.
The final paving on the north side of the new bridge of the Boca Grande Causeway was completed on June 3. One-lane traffic led to some delays and at times stopped traffic.
30 boats fished in the annual Gasparilla Island Kids Classic. The annual tournament was held on Saturday, June 4 at Gasparilla Island State Park. Capt. Blake Cheske on Outta Line took first place with five releases from the boat. The $34,000 raised went to children’s charities and educational programs.
Everyone was invited to the World’s Ocean Day educational event on the island on June 8. “This is the first year Mote is celebrating World Oceans Day in Boca Grande, and it is the ninth year Mote is celebrating World Oceans Day at its Aquarium in Sarasota,” said Kaitlyn Fusco, Mote Marine Public Relations Manager.
Guests at The Boca Club had an exciting morning on Friday, June 8 when they witnessed a rare daytime hatch. Boca Grande Sea Turtle Association volunteer Melissa Csank said there have been numerous hatches across the island over the summer, including one rare late morning hatch. Ladies Night Howl: Bella Siren wins again The team aboard the Jill Marie stepped onto the Whidden’s Marina dock as winners of the 2016 Ladies Night Out Howl at the Moon Tarpon Tournament on Saturday, June 11.
Current takes Cape Coral man Javier Castro, a 22-year-old man from Cape Coral, disappeared in the water on Saturday June 18 while swimming just off the Florida State Park-maintained beach called Range Light Beach.
Dylan Gonzales and Billy Pfannkuch were fishing in a boat on June 19 when they were struck by another boater. Gonzales was transported to Blake Memorial Hospital in Bradenton but died there of his injuries. Pfannkuch was also injured quite seriously, but was in stable condition the next day.
Barrier Island Parks Society Executive Director Sharon McKenzie attended a Florida Lighthouse Association (FLA) meeting in July, at which she was awarded a check for $30,000 from a grant request she wrote to the organization.
New palms on Causeway signified completion of GIBA bridge replacement project. The final phases of construction on the new bridge system were nearly complete by July 15, 2016, including a major landscaping project that has come along more quickly than anyone anticipated.
Island residents David and Patty Hayes walked down the street the 1.5 miles from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland Ohio on Tuesday, July 19. They were leaving a party hosted by Ohio Governor John Kasich and were en route to the Republican National Convention.
Capt. Willie’s team took first prize in First Annual Ladies Draw Tournament. It was a hot morning out on Boca Grande Pass on July 16 at 10 a.m., but there were plenty of ladies ready to fish and seek the elusive July silver king. Candy Brooks, Jodi Alice, Kalee Joiner and Leslie Edwards took first place in the tournament.
It’s very unusual to see a sea turtle stop off at the beach in the middle of the day to lay her eggs, but that’s what happened around 4:30 p.m. on July 22.
Gasparilla Inn & Club makes elite Travel & Leisure list Travel & Leisure magazine put forth its list of the “world’s best” in June. The Gasparilla Inn & Club took the top spot on the list of Florida resort hotels.
The Gasparilla Island Conservation and Improvement Association (GICIA) is extremely pleased to report that demolition of the Old Mercabo Conference Center and its surrounding structures is well underway. Demolition was completed at the end of August.
New CEO at Boca Grande Clinic Grande Health Clinic. Bilodeau assumed her duties on August 1, 2016. She replaced John Sielert, who retired on October 1, 2016.
Representatives from Lee County informed Boca Grande Farmers Market Founder Shauna Lee that Wheeler Field would not be available for use from October through December of 2016 due to a county construction project.
Dozens of workers were busy adding more beauty to The Gasparilla Inn & Club during June and July. Jon Reecher, general manager at The Gasparilla Inn & Club, said the work is part of a three-year project.
Construction was complete on the new Boca Grande swing bridge in early August. A bridge open house reception was scheduled to take place in November. Belcher residents ask:
Seagate Development contractors began work at the southern tip of the island in August. Developers say they’ll attempt to relocate osprey the nesting pole at Hill Tide Estates.
Our sister island, Cayo Costa, has been singled out by National Geographic Travel as one of the best stops around the Fort Myers area to visit. It came in at number three out of 10, to be exact. Tropical storms roll across the water The first real storm of the season rolled in our general direction in August. The Boca Grande Fire Department sent out a reminder to make sure residents have up to date island hurricane tags.
Hurricane Hermine went from an “Invest” to becoming a healthy storm in the Gulf of Mexico on September 1, 2016. As of press time she was churning her way up to the Panhandle. Roadwork, bike path widening begins Lee County Department of Transportation began roadwork on the island in early September that included a bigger bike path at the south end and widening on Gasparilla Road. Ajax Paving Industries of Florida LLC was chosen to complete the $2.3 million project. The loss of a great man: Former Fire Chief Lew Morgan passes away at age 78. Lee Morgan was introduced to the Boca Grande Community in July of 1989. He would soon be taking over the job of fire chief. He not only became a legendary chief, but a great friend to many on the island. He passed away on Friday, Sept. 9, at Tidewell Hospice in Englewood. Page Presnell hooked into the biggest fish at the youth fishing tournament on Saturday, Sept. 17 at the Boca Grande North Fishing Pier. The Boca Beacon and Lee County Parks and Recreation hosted the tournament. An island firefighter was suspended without pay on Friday, Sept. 23 after the Boca Grande Fire Department and Lee County received phone calls regarding a racist comment made on Facebook. Coughing, sneezing and runny noses were common annoyances on the island in late September after thousands of dead fish washed up on Charlotte County beaches. The bloom continued through the first week of October. The Gasparilla Inn & Club hosts open house Ushering in the classic resort’s 103rd Season, The Gasparilla Inn & Club invited everyone for the annual community open house on Wednesday, Oct. 5. Hundreds attended the celebration. The Barrier Island Parks Society hosted The Lightkeeper’s Open, a Gasparilla Island Lighthouse charity golf outing, on Monday, Oct. 17 at The Gasparilla Inn Golf Course. The Boca Grande farmers market will return on Friday, Jan. 6, 2017 to the Wheeler Road Ballfield, but new faces will be running the ship. Jean Baer and Betsy Ventury of Local Roots, a company with seven other Lee County farmer’s markets, will be leading the way into a healthy new year. The annual Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce Scramble Golf Tournament was held on Monday, Oct. 10 at The Gasparilla Inn & Club. The tournament is the major fundraiser for the Boca Grande Chamber Scholarship Fund. An awards party at the Gasparilla Inn Beach Club followed the tournament. Hurricane Matthew blows Boca Grande a kiss … from a distance. As of press time on Thursday, Oct. 6, Hurricane Matthew was a Category 4 storm and was just crossing over The Bahamas. The forecasted track took it swerving a bit away from the eastern Florida coastline. Lee County did enact a state of emergency, primarily because officials had to open shelters for evacuees from Florida’s east coast. Lee County commissioners vote unanimously for 5th Street parking expansion Lee County commissioners voted unanimously to pass a proposal to renovate the 5th Street public parking lot at a meeting held on Tuesday, Oct. 4. The permitting process was expected to be complete and renovations were supposed to be done by the end of the year. Iguana trapper rapper George Cera will be an even more common sight around town next year, as Lee County has extended his contract to include the winter months. The contract until now was for nine months. Have you turned in your form yet? Hope for Haitians provides help Boca Grande resident Ben Scott asked community members to help the families living in tents and tin shacks by donating to Food for the Poor, Inc., 6401 Lions Rd., Coconut Creek, FL 33073 to assist with the cause. The annual Boca Grande Community Center Halloween Carnival was held on Saturday, Oct. 29 at the community center. Awards and ribbons were given to every child who attended and wore a costume. Island photographer Heidemarie J. Burke, CPP, Master Photographer, earned awards at ceremonies in Orlando for her entries in the Florida Professional Photographers’ photographic competition. If you happened to visit the state park beaches in early October, you might have noticed a couple of colorful flags posted near the water. The purple and yellow flags waving in the wind were placed there by state park rangers to warn swimmers about dangerous marine life in the water and to alert swimmers of moderate surf. The sad tale of Bubba the baby whale: On the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 18, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) notified Mote Marine Laboratory scientists of a stranded, 19-foot-long sperm whale in the shallows off Little Gasparilla Island in Charlotte County. While Mote researchers never gave the whale’s gender in conversation, on social media it had a nickname: Bubba. It was a newborn, and was extremely underweight and in very poor condition. Also, at such a young age, the whale was not expected to survive without its mother. After consultation with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which oversees wild marine mammal populations, it was determined that the most humane decision would be to euthanize the whale. A lesson in perspective and love: Meeting the people of Leon, Nicaragua On Saturday, Oct. 15 three members of the Lighthouse United Methodist Church of Boca Grande went on a life-changing mission to a little community in Nicaragua. They left with a purpose and returned home with even more passion to help the people of the poverty-stricken town of León. This was the first trip of its kind for the church, and for the three who traveled so far away – Bob and Sheila Dorst and Tabitha Jordan. Agenda item 26: That was the rather innocuous name of a precedent- setting topic of discussion for Lee County Commissioners on Tuesday, Nov. 1. Agenda Item 26 is Gilchrist Avenue parking, and commissioners will be voting on a final plan, thereby hopefully putting a very well-worn controversy to rest. The proposal to be presented to county commissioners includes the addition of 66 palm trees along Gilchrist between 1st and 5th Streets. A change in project price (palm tree replacement fell below $100,000) meant no vote was needed by county commissioners. The item was stricken from the agenda, and the trees were subsequently planted in November. The U.S. Presidential election turnout was good in the Lee County portion of the island on Tuesday, Nov. 8 at Precinct 18. Boca Grande residents followed the trend for the presidential race, as well as the senatorial race, with Trump and Rubio pulling ahead of their opponents. For the first time ever, The Gasparilla Inn & Club has been voted the No.1 Resort in Florida by the two most esteemed consumer travel magazines in the same year. The historic resort, located in Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island, is honored as the No. 1 Resort in Florida (Gulf) in Condé Nast Traveler’s 2016 Readers’ Choice Awards. Additionally, The Inn was named the No. 1 Florida Resort, No. 14 in the United States, and No. 49 in the World in Travel + Leisure’s 2016 World’s Best Awards. The Barrier Island Parks Society announced in November that restoration of our Gasparilla Island Light (GIL) is proceeding on schedule … in fact, maybe even ahead of schedule. Tournament held in honor of Dylan Gonzalez The Dylan Gonzalez “Fish in Paradise” Snook, Redfish & Trout Tournament and Fundraiser was held on November 12. Island resident Lucy Stanton remembers sitting with her father at Wrigley field on October 1, 1932. It was the third game of the World Series, and Babe Ruth was coming up to bat. He pointed toward center field, stepped into the batter’s box and slammed the ball 440 feet over the center field wall. On Wednesday, Nov. 2, at 96, she watched the Cubs win from her home in Boca Grande. For the first time in decades, the Boca Grande Causeway is allowing vehicles exceeding 40,000 pounds to cross the swing bridge, after having approved the increase at their quarterly meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 16. Gasparilla Island Water Association, Inc. (GIWA) will be temporarily changing the disinfection process for its potable (drinking) water supply. GIWA will disinfect the water with free chlorine rather than combined chlorine/ammonia (chloramines) beginning on November 28, 2016 through January 3, 2017. December Forum together again The Royal Palm Players, Boca Grande’s own theater company, was very excited about reviving their collaboration with the Literature Forum to present a dramatic reading of Arthur Miller’s award-winning play, ‘All My Sons.’ For more than 10 years the two groups worked together to present readings of classic plays like ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,’ ‘A View from the Bridge’ and ‘Suddenly Last Summer.’ After a six-year hiatus, the Lit Forum approached RPP about restarting the program, and RPP jumped at the opportunity. If you visited the beach near the range light in December, you probably not only saw but heard the progress workers made on the Gasparilla Range Light restoration project. Razorback, LLC recently fitted the range light with a covered tented top. The majority of the painting is expected to be done by the end of the year. Island Bike and Beach is no more. Duane Zobrist, owner of Gasparilla Adventures, a resort outfitters company, recently purchased the property located at 333 Park Avenue on the island. Zobrist will be running a business that will rent bikes, golf carts, kayaks and paddleboards. The Boca Grande Camera Club committee members are busy planning an exciting season ahead, including several community opportunities and mentoring. There will be an open house reception at 10 a.m. on Jan. 17 for any prospective new members. Anyone interested in the club is invited. The meeting will be held in the Houghton Room at the community center. An arrest was been made in the June boating death of an Englewood man. According to Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office booking reports, Dalton Matthew Reaps, 20, of Wauchula was arrested on Tuesday, Dec. 20. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission is handling the investigation but has not yet released its final report. Dylan Gonzales, 23, of Englewood was killed after another vessel crashed into the boat he was on in Placida Harbor. Final paving update: They’re done! Commuters to the island were smiling on Friday, Dec. 23 as the road paving project on the island is now finished. The crews will clear out completely in the first week of 2017.