Café of Life one step closer to permanent home in Bonita Springs

Pedro Perez, center, is all smiles and laughter after being handed a few donated  blankets from Joanne Herrada, left, and Jane Lantieri, right, while at Cafe of Life's soup kitchen Thursday morning.  Temperatures dropped into the low 30's across the region the night before and the charity organizationhas been handing out warm clothes and blankets for several days in preparation.  Michel Fortier/Staff

Photo by MICHEL FORTIER // Buy this photo

Pedro Perez, center, is all smiles and laughter after being handed a few donated blankets from Joanne Herrada, left, and Jane Lantieri, right, while at Cafe of Life's soup kitchen Thursday morning. Temperatures dropped into the low 30's across the region the night before and the charity organizationhas been handing out warm clothes and blankets for several days in preparation. Michel Fortier/Staff

Bonita Springs supports a soup kitchen's plan to build a park where it can feed the hungry.

Despite one council member's last-ditch effort to steer Café of Life toward a location closer to downtown, City Council voted 4-3 Wednesday to negotiate a lease with the soup kitchen regarding the planned park at the eastern end of the Leitner Park neighborhood.

Council members approved Café of Life's plans to build the park and then serve lunches to the hungry on weekdays. At other times, the park will be open to local residents.

The park will be built on a strip of county-owned land adjacent to Imperial Parkway. The vacant lot was created during construction of the road. Lee County has agreed to sign over the land to the city.

Café of Life served about 23,000 meals at picnic tables under the banyan tree across from Riverside Park in downtown Bonita Springs last year. The organization has been feeding the hungry in Bonita since 1998, and has been seeking a permanent home for several years.

Several members of the community, Café of Life volunteers and needy clients spoke in favor of the plan Wednesday.

"The poor will always be with us, they will be here whether you do this or not," said Robert Vandegrift. "This isn't a case of what we are going to do with Café of Life, it's a case of how we can make it better."

"Café of Life has helped me a great deal because my husband is the only one who works and I've got two small children," said Martina Ventura, with help from a translator. "They have helped me with diapers and wipes and even with bills from time to time."

Café of Life first presented the plan last spring. Although organizers presented a study that showed 92 percent of nearby residents favored a new park at that location, council members asked Café of Life to sample a broader swath of residents and nonresident property owners.

Wednesday, Café of Life presented a second study that also found more than 90 percent of residents wanted the park and did not object to the soup kitchen.

But Councilwoman Janet Martin said that after speaking to some unhappy residents, she prefers the soup kitchen find a location that is not embedded in a neighborhood.

"Initially, I thought this was a wonderful idea, that this was great. That, finally, Café of Life will find a home," she said. "But this is their neighborhood and we are inviting strangers into their neighborhood."

Councilman Peter Simmons also voiced concern about the soup kitchen's location and limited access.

But former Mayor Jay Arend, who represented Café of Life at the meeting, said security will not be a problem.

"Our donors will have over one-half million dollars invested in the park, and there will be no tax dollars used," he said. "If an issue does arise, and if it's identified as a problem caused by the Café of Life being there, we're not going to abandon that contribution."

Like Simmons and Martin, Councilwoman Martha Simons said she supported the soup kitchen, but not in a residential neighborhood.

She also suggested the soup kitchen might find a more appropriate home at the Lions Club building downtown.

"It's got everything you need," she said. "It's accessible, it's commercial, it's well-maintained and it's got heating and air conditioning."

Simons, who serves on the club's board of directors, said she has put the idea on the club's next board agenda and asked that council table discussion of the new park while she investigates the possibility.

"I'm just asking for one month," she said.

The Lions Club facility on Pennsylvania Avenue can seat 180 diners, she said, and has an adequate kitchen and parking.

But Councilman Steve McIntosh said the nonprofit has already jumped through enough hoops for the city.

"If we don't push this forward today, we simply throw it back in Café of Life's lap," he said. "If there's a different way, I wish it would have been brought forth before today."

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