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BONITA SPRINGS — Retiring Bonita Springs City Manager Gary Price packed up his belongings from his office at City Hall this week, leaving the incoming manager, Carl Schwing, a hand-me-down desk (salvaged from a Lee County office at the city’s incorporation) and a stack of reading material nearly two feet tall.
While it will surely take Schwing some time to get through the paperwork, the most important pieces of advice Price will pass on can be found on his famous list of “Gary’s Fifteen Theorems” -- proverbs he has picked up over the years, which he often referred to during his 11-year tenure heading up the administration of Bonita Springs.
The list starts with, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and finishes with, “It could be worse.” In the middle are gems like, “No good deed goes unpunished,” and “Do not pick a fight with an 800-pound gorilla.”
Price’s dry sense of humor and candid demeanor have been defining characteristics in his interactions with city officials, citizens and others doing business with the city. He came on board in 2000 amid the chaos of incorporation and has championed numerous improvements, including new roads, sidewalks, parks and storm water projects.
“He treated everyone fairly and made time for everyone, whether you were someone who showed up at City Hall with a complaint or were a staff person needing special assistance,” said Public Works Manager Daryl Walk. “Gary told it ‘as it is’ with no sugar coating. Some people might initially get upset but, in the long run, would appreciate his straightforward approach.”
Although his candor has been known to draw ire, many of those who have challenged Price over the years showed up at a surprise retirement party in his honor May 25 at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point. Nearly 300 guests packed the ballroom, many participating in a good-natured roast. Some even alluded to thorny issues, such as a heated conflict with council member John Spear last year. Their relationship has since improved through regular meetings.
City Attorney Audrey Vance, who attended the roast and has worked with Price since the city’s incorporation, calls Price’s frankness his best and worst characteristic. Forever ingrained in her memory is the image of Price munching on a 3 Musketeers candy bar during his contract negotiations. When he noticed Vance watching, he generously held out the slightly eaten chocolate bar and offered her a bite.
“I don’t think anyone had done that to me since second grade,” recalled Vance this week, adding she laughed and declined the offer. “That pretty much cemented the relationship, and it’s been the same ever since. In retrospect, I probably should’ve taken a bite.”
As Price prepared for his final council meeting June 1, he said his only regrets as city manager are the times he didn’t speak up enough.
“I hate people who beat around the bush; I don’t have time for it,” he said. “At the end of the day, people want you to tell them straight up -- tell the truth.”
Most people respect Price’s candor because it’s backed by an extensive knowledge base, Vance said. Before taking the helm as Bonita’s first city manager, Price served as Sanibel’s city manager for 14 years.
“He’s very astute,” Vance said. “I’m in awe of what he does.”
She most admires Price’s adeptness at “playing Monopoly” with city lands. He possesses a remarkable ability to identify and creatively acquire property which will benefit the city, Vance noted.
Price’s legacy includes the development of several green spaces, such as Bonita Nature Place and the emerging River Park behind Kmart. In the future, he envisions a boardwalk under U.S. 41 connecting the 17-acre park with the county boat ramp across the street.
“I’m a builder; I want to build sidewalks and parks,” Price said, adding his greatest satisfaction comes from seeing people enjoying their natural surroundings and connecting with their neighbors. “I’m most proud of the newfound respect and love of Imperial River. I think the county and the city did not really appreciate that as an asset.”
Noting Theorem No. 5 (“Government does not solve problems, it only trades for other problems”), Price adds, “The trick is to use the river and enjoy it but not overuse it.”
Council member Janet Martin credits Price as the major advocate for Bonita Nature Place (BNP), which sits along the Imperial River and provides habitat for gopher tortoises, bats, honeybees and butterflies.
“The day Gary told me that he was retiring, he said, ‘Just think, all the more time for me to volunteer at the BNP,’” Martin recalled.
Price, whose hero is President Theodore Roosevelt, founder of the National Parks Department, said he will use some of his newfound free time to help fix up a five-acre preserve area behind the Bonita Art League. He plans to spend his retirement “doing nothin’,” which includes boating, motorcycling and playing with his three grandchildren.
As suggested by a fellow Rotarian in the Bonita morning club, he’s also thinking of adding a No. 16 to his list of theorems: “Fishing is not the most important thing; it’s just more important than anything else.”