ESTERO — Those who know Don Eslick describe him with words like integrity, intelligence and dedication. Nick Batos, vice chair of the Estero Council of Community Leaders (ECCL), has dubbed Eslick “Mr. Estero.” Phil Douglas, president of Lighthouse Bay at The Brooks, calls Eslick “the glue that holds the community together.”
Now Don Eslick has another title: Visionary of the Decade. The ECCL has presented a Village Visionary award each year since 2006 to a citizen who invests his or her energy into improving Estero’s quality of life. Eslick was part of the group which chose Bill Brown as the 2011 Visionary, but his fellow council members caught him by surprise with the Decade award.
“I would like to say that Don was selected by his peers to receive the only ’Visionary of the Decade’ ever given out, but in my opinion, there is no peer to Don Eslick,” said ECCL Vice Chair Beverly MacNellis. “There is no doubt in my mind he has made Estero what it is today.”
From airplane noise to traffic concerns, preservation of natural resources to economic development, if it affects Estero, you can be sure it’s on Eslick’s radar.
“I’m an expeditor — that’s the role I like to think of myself — trying to keep the trains on the track and running in the right direction and trying to mobilize the talent we have down here,” he said.
With a professional background in economics, investment banking and governmental relations, Eslick, 76, is not your typical retiree. Although he likes to swing a golf club, he works his tee times around countless meetings and hours of research.
When Don received his award, his wife, Suzie, joked she should be getting one for being the “Estero widow” since his civic duties often take him away from social outings.
“Hardly ever a day passes when someone doesn’t tell me how fortunate we are to have Don working for us in the community,” Suzie said. “I’m very proud of him. He is very dedicated, and his integrity is above reproach.”
Estero’s population has grown about 167 percent in the last decade, and as the community grows, so do the issues: mine threats, water quality, access to healthcare...the list goes on and on.
Eslick embraces each new challenge with one goal in mind: preserving the community’s standard of living. Letting his mind fall victim to inactivity is simply not an option.
Eslick enjoys conducting research, and the results of his efforts are rewarded in tangible ways: development plans upgraded, mine threats abated, healthcare access improved.
Eslick is quick to point to a host of other civic-minded individuals who bring expertise to the ECCL and its counterparts, the Estero Community Planning Panel (ECPP) and the Estero Design Review Committee (EDRC). The ranks include active and retired engineers, architects, planners and executives.
“We have a lot of qualified retired professionals who are willing to step up to the plate and do things, and we always operate in a professional manner,” Eslick said. “That’s been the secret to our success.”
Eslick acknowledged 2011 Village Visionary Bill Brown for his role as the Estero Chamber of Commerce’s first director and a founding member of the Estero Concerned Citizens Organization (ECCO), a grassroots group which was the forerunner of the ECCL. Other early visionaries included ECCO leaders Arnie Rosenthal and Neal Noethlich.
In order to have a voice in early commercial development along the U.S. 41 corridor, ECCO members were looking to create a Community Plan. “That’s when I stumbled on the scene,” said Eslick, who was then a semi-retired investment banker with his own Illinois firm specializing in urban economic development and tax increment financing.
Through his company, Eslick formed public-private partnerships to help cities fill empty commercial space. He also brought experience in governmental relations as a former assistant superintendent of education for the State of Illinois.
“Don is a unique individual who was the right person at the right time for Estero,” Batos said. “He came with a combination of talents and experiences that were exactly what we in Estero needed to organize, plan and implement a grassroots organization that has truly made Estero a ’Village with a Vision’...a vision that is being realized.”
Eslick and Noethlich spearheaded the effort to create Estero’s first Community Plan. Adopted by the Lee Board of County Commissioners in 2002, the plan requires developers to present plans to Estero residents before taking requests to the county level.
Eslick’s next job was to spearhead a revision of the Land Development Code, creating higher standards for signage, landscaping and architecture for new developments in Estero. Local experts were assigned to the Planning Panel and the Design Review Committee to meet with developers.
“Over the past decade, Don has been the instrumental personality in organizing and solidifying our volunteer base and in establishing relationships with public and other officials,” Noethlich said. “Don is very well organized, great at multi-tasking, has a remarkable memory, and more importantly, is always prepared. He works well with volunteers, which is our hallmark here in Estero.”
This year, Eslick has been giving numerous “Village with a Vision” presentations to help Estero citizens understand the community’s three quasi-governmental organizations. ECCL members are hoping to attract increased participation and financial contributions.
The ECCL needs to raise about $100,000 to pay for an update to the Estero Community Plan and to create a “defense fund” to be used for combatting mine threats and protecting the community’s water supply, Eslick said.
The next Village with a Vision presentation is planned for June 15 at the Hyatt Regency and will include representatives from Bonita Springs, local fire districts and state legislators
Eslick remains positive in believing Estero will recover from the recession more quickly than its neighbors. “We have a lot of assets, so we have to be patient and persistent.”
Estero leaders agree one of the community’s greatest assets is Eslick himself.
“Don Eslick is a visionary who saw Estero was a place that, if planned and implemented properly, could be a model community,” Batos said. “All who live in Estero now and in the future will have Don to thank for what Estero has become. He is truly Mr. Estero.”