Cafe of Life's plans get mixed reviews among Bonita Springs residents

Linda and Hascal Petrey sound supportive of the Café of Life's plans to build a park and pavilion around the corner from their Wagon Trail home. In their 17 years in Bonita Springs, the couple hasn't had any issues with the charity.

Still, they have a few questions about the project, which they brought to a neighborhood ice cream social Sunday.

"We are concerned about the Café of Life having safety for the little ones coming through the neighborhood," said Linda Petrey, 71."We've been familiar with the Café of Life before, and we haven't heard any bad things about it, but having it in your neighborhood all day and all night might be a different thing."

Board members and volunteers heard from several concerned residents and welcomed a few dozen locals Sunday afternoon, sharing ice cream and designs for the site in the Leitner Creek Manor and Rosemary Park neighborhoods. The event came at the request of city officials, who wanted Café of Life representatives to host an outreach meeting.

The plans, which would move the charity's free meals and other service from under the downtown banyan tree, remains in the early stages, and still needs approval from city officials. Designs call for a catering kitchen and covered pavilion, as well as a playground, open lawn and parking lot with basketball hoops.

Bruce Wheatley, vice chairman of the charity's board of directors, addressed concerns about safety. Wheatley said security sensors could be installed in the planned building. He said the Lee County Sheriff's Office has pledged extra after-hours patrols for the park in its first few months, and the city's private security firm has offered extra patrols.

"The concern will be after dark, not when we're here, and that's why the electronics and two outside security firms will be here," Wheatley said.

The move would not only give Café of Life a permanent structure, but would benefit residents such as Toveria Chapa, who lives on Stardust Drive, around the corner from the proposed site. Chapa now walks nearly two miles each way to Café of Life's downtown Bonita Springs location, a 45-minute trek. Charity officials estimate 30 to 40 percent of the people they serve are Leitner Creek Manor and Rosemary Park residents.

"It would be so much better," Chapa said in Spanish through a translator. "A lot of us are in favor of it."

Others who reside closer to the downtown serving site would face longer walks, though charity officials are confident those people would make the trip.

Charity officials note that a survey of 102 randomly selected neighborhood residents shows about 90 percent support for the pavilion. A second survey, mailed to 88 people who own property in the neighborhood but don't reside there, such as landlords, shows less support. Of the 10 who responded, half opposed the plans, Wheatley said.

Results from Sunday's event will be presented to city officials Aug. 15. No timeline has been set for construction on the project, which has an estimated cost of $400,000 to $600,000.

"We feel more optimistic than we have in the past," Wheatley said, noting the charity has looked at 18 sites in the past seven years.

"The poor and the hungry are always going to be with us, and our people are very patient as we figure out what we're going to do."

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