As the final days of the outgoing year wind down, it is traditional to look back on the preceding 12 months, and assess where we’ve been. On Marco Island, where we’ve been is sitting in traffic, waiting to cross the Jolley Bridge.
This was the ‘year of the bridge,’ when the long-awaited parallel span for the island’s main gateway finally moved from pipe dream to a set of plans to concrete reality. Through persistent networking, planning, and lobbying, notably by the late Mike Minozzi and current Marco Island City Councilor Bill Trotter, the Jolley Bridge was “shovel ready” when Federal stimulus dollars became available.
For a year and more, the already congested traffic crossing the bridge became still worse, as construction crews made surprisingly swift progress for such a major undertaking. Minozzi did not live to see the project complete, but his widow Lynne Minozzi unveiled a plaque commemorating his work, during the dedication ceremony for the new span on Nov. 19.
The added span provides many benefits to Marco Island residents, most notably providing a category-5 hurricane rated evacuation route. It provides breakdown lanes, relieves congestion, especially during rush hour, provides pedestrian and bicycle access and breakdown lanes.
Completed ahead of schedule, and within the deadline for stimulus projects, the span cost approximately $29 million of Federal, state, and Collier County funding. The parallel span actually opened to traffic Oct. 5.
A group of Islanders, chaired by Dave Rice, has commenced an effort to erect a massive American flag on the Marco Island side of the bridge, showing all who cross the pride and patriotism of Marco.
The next big project
In other bridge news, the Smokehouse Bay Bridge, which takes less than 10 seconds to cross and is possible to ignore altogether as you do, continues to wind slowly toward replacement, with over $100,000 and countless man or woman-hours dedicated to making sure it and the surrounding area are the best that they can be.
On the mainland side of Collier Boulevard, a groundbreaking ceremony was held in May to mark the beginning of construction on a $7 million taxiway for the Marco Island Executive Airport.
Chris Curry, executive director of the Collier County Airport Authority reviewed the history of the taxiway, the lack of which was first identified as a safety hazard in the 1996 airport master plan. The taxiway, which will extend 5,000 feet parallel to the existing runway, will eliminate the need for “back taxiing,” freeing up the runway for takeoffs and landings. Last year, the Marco airport handled 18,000 of those, operating at full capacity during the season, with long waits sometimes required.
The airport sits on sensitive wetlands, with the taxiway having to be carved out of adjoining mangroves. This accounted for much of the lengthy approval and permitting process, with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, the Dept. of Environmental Protection, and the Army Corps of Engineers all having to sign off on the work. Completion is scheduled for April 2012.
Education takes center stage
Another project came to fruition in a brief time, when the Marco Island Academy, Marco’s charter high school, opened its doors, as the 80 students of the new charter high school celebrated the opening of a brand new institution of learning. At the school’s temporary home at the First Baptist Church on Winterberry Drive, the teachers made their entrance into the assembly of students at a run on opening day, wearing leis and sweatbands, and carrying basketballs.
MIA had already tried out a possible location at Tract K, which didn’t pan out, before settling on property along San Marco Road, which wasn’t ready. Also not panning out was the school’s founding principal, Dr. Chris Pellant, whose resignation was accepted in November, less than three months after the school opened for the first day of classes.
Winterberry Academy, which occupied the quarters taken over by MIA last school year, ceased operations at the end of the school year, making the charter school’s temporary space available.
Hope for new life
Also along San Marco Road, a 225-acre tract of mangroves, which has been the victim of a die-off, leaving a forest of skeleton trees, and at times a strong odor of rotting vegetation, is now the subject of a restoration effort, spearheaded by the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, which manages the land, mangrove restoration expert Roy “Robin” Lewis, head of Coastal Resources Group, and Marco resident Bob Olson. The group is seeking matching funds to secure a three-to-one Federal matching grant to restore natural tidal water flow to the affected area.
Olson stressed that, while the city is a co-applicant, and part of the team, absolutely no City of Marco Island tax funds are being sought for the project.
“This is a problem that can be solved,” said Olson. “It’s not rocket science, it’s basic plumbing.”
The fishing village of Goodland saw work on a revamped county park, to join the park completed the previous year, which is primarily aimed at providing additional boat launching facilities for Southwest Florida mariners.
Margood Harbor Park sits on 2.67 waterfront acres in Goodland, the more rustic, unincorporated area of Marco Island, on land that used to hold a trailer park, movie theater and community store.
Unlike the county’s Goodland boat launching park, which some Goodland residents and civic leaders complained would not benefit the local community, and only snarl the village’s narrow roads with boat trailers, Margood Harbor is designed to offer amenities for the locals.
Changing of the guard
After the year of 2010, which saw wholesale changes in city government personnel, from the city manager on down, 2011 was relatively quiet in terms of officials shuffling job descriptions and jobs. The most notable shift was the retirement of Police Chief Thom Carr in July, and the immediate appointment of former Collier County Sheriff Don Hunter to fill that post.
Carr made the rounds of thank you gatherings and a retirement party, with tributes from area notables and gag gifts, including a set of toy golf clubs presented to him by Fire Chief Mike Murphy.
In a packed community room at the MIPD headquarters on August 8, Hunter was sworn in as the city’s third police chief, before a crowd of notables from law enforcement, government, and civic organizations from around southwest Florida.
The list of agencies represented at the ceremony on a rainy Monday morning was a tribute to the high profile Hunter, 59, has enjoyed during four terms as county sheriff, and the many lives and careers he has impacted. It also contributed to an alphabet soup of acronyms, with representatives from FHP, FWC, FDLE, LCEC, MIFD, USCGA, NPD, LCSO, and of course the CCSO, or Collier County Sheriff’s Office, represented by current sheriff Kevin Rambosk. Hunter’s bio, and the list of his accomplishments, awards, and affiliations filled a page of closely-spaced text on the program handed out to attendees.
In addition to the dignitaries, dozens of Marco Island police officers, who will be Hunter’s employees, and firefighters, who will continue their friendly rivalry, judging from the proceedings, were on hand to see the new chief sworn in. Hunter pulled out a baseball glove and a softball, giving notice he intends to take the police/firefighter competition on the field of play seriously. There were additional city personnel moves, including bumping Bryan Milk up from parks and recreation director to community services director and city planner.
Other moments ...
n The Marco Fire-Rescue Dept. opened Station 51 on Elkcam Circle to full-time use, with the promise of quicker emergency response times for the north end of the island. Emergency services came under scrutiny when an island man died amidst confusion about jurisdiction for ambulance services, and Fire Chief Murphy proposed the city take over ambulance service on the island.
n A fire in Erie, Pa. made the local news when the former Rosie O’Shea, a paddle boat, was damaged while being readied for the summer excursion season.
n Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, son of one President and brother of another, spoke to a crowd of around 500 at the Marco Marriott in February, in the inaugural event of the fledgling Marco Town Hall speaker series. Bush pointedly declined to say he is running for president himself, even when invited to do so by moderator Neal Boortz.
n Island Republicans finally got organized when the Caxambas Republican Club held an organizational meeting in July, with regular monthly social and business get-togethers since. Marco Island was identified as one of the most beautiful small towns in America, in a Rand-McNally-sponsored contest that saw the island rolling out the red carpet for a pair of traveling judges.
n In February, Turbo, an 11-year old Doberman, was rescued from a canal, with the aid of some friendly dolphins, according to Turbo’s “mother,” Cindy Burnett of Marco.
n The Marco Island Center for the Arts, under the leadership of new executive director Lynn Holley, put on an invigorated series of programs.
n Marco’s new Island Players Community Theater debuted with “A Bad Year for Tomatoes,” their maiden production, in the Rose History Auditorium at the Marco Island Historical Museum.
Beaches were cleaned, pets were blessed, the Wall did some healing on Marco, the Taste of Marco drew a crowd, and the City Council passed the annual budget, coming in just under the wire and oh, so much more.
In other words, just another year in Paradise.
BOX TEASER: What was your favorite moment in 2011? Go to marconews.com and leave a comment.