2016 laid the groundwork for the stories that dominated the first half of 2017
Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part series highlighting the biggest hard news stories of 2017.
Although Marco Island may have an off season with regards to its tourism, there is no such thing for the folks at city hall; they deal with a multitude of issues throughout the year, and 2017 was no different.
Councilors nix Veterans Community Park hotel
On Aug. 3, 2016, Florida land developer Small Brothers, LLC announced its plan to build a moderately-priced,165-room hotel at 580 Elkcam Circle and 870 Park Avenue, two parcels of land adjacent to Veterans Community Park.
Small Brothers, LLC also offered to develop the park as part of the project, mostly because in order to move forward, the company had to borrow both money from the city and commercial intensity credits from the city-owned park.
For those reasons, the project quickly became controversial, with some residents arguing that the hotel would negatively affect the quality of life on the island by increasing traffic, attracting a questionable clientele and furthering the city’s already severe parking problem.
The debate surrounding the hotel carried over into the new year as the developer readjusted its plans in an effort to sway public opinion..
In January, Bob Mulhere and Patrick Neale, representatives of Small Brothers, LLC, revealed the revamped plans for the hotel, which included a reduction in height from 95 feet to 75 feet, a reduction in the number of rooms from 165 to 153, and an agreement to pay the city $1 million in exchange for the park's intensity credits rather than add $3.5 million worth of enhancements it.
Despite the developer's best efforts, the Marco Island City Council voted 6-1 that the city will not be a co-applicant on any project involving Veterans Community Park, thereby putting a stop to the hotel.
Council, in conjunction with the Planning Board, also placed a moratorium on the transfer of density or intensity credits.
City Manager Roger Hernstadt resigns
Marco Island City Manager Roger Hernstadt submitted a letter of resignation during the Feb. 6 City Council meeting. Hernstadt said he felt it was no longer in the best interests of the city for him to be the city manager.
Hernstadt’s departure was dubbed a resignation, but it appears he was forced out in an agreement that essentially paid him to leave immediately rather than work through the rest of his contract, which had been set to expire July 7.
A new majority on the seven-member council — incumbent and then-Chairman Larry Honig and newly-elected members Jared Grifoni, Howard Reed and Charlette Roman — were blamed by some residents for ganging up on Hernstadt. Many residents also cited the Veterans Community Park hotel project as the origin of the tension between Hernstadt and the council, and the reason behind the councilors' decision to have Hernstadt leave immediately.
However the hotel wasn’t the first controversial project on Hernstadt’s record; in early 2016, the city became embroiled in a dispute with The Esplanade after city crews encroached on its property while constructing the Smokehouse Bay Bridge, renamed the Herb Savage Bridge. Settling the dispute ended up costing taxpayers more than $30,000.
Another source of bitterness between Hernstadt and the council began several weeks prior to his departure when councilors started questioning his contract.
Ultimately, the councilors accepted Hernstadt’s resignation 5-2 and later agreed on an $89,000 severance package. They also appointed Finance Director Guillermo Polanco as acting city manager with a $3,000 per month stipend.
City Council hires new city manager
Immediately after Hernstadt's resignation, the council began the search for a new city manager. It selected executive search firm The Mercer Group, Inc. – the firm that tapped Marco Island’s original, and longest-lasting, city manager Bill Moss for the position of Naples city manager in 2008 – to conduct the search.
W.D. Higginbotham, Jr. of The Mercer Group, Inc. presented a list of semi-finalists to the councilors on June 21, and the council selected two finalists: Joshua Gruber of Beaufort, S.C. and Anthony Hamaday of King of Prussia, Pa.
However Hamaday later withdrew his candidacy, making Gruber the sole finalist.
The appearance of a default city manager left a bad taste in the mouths of some Marco residents, who recommended that the councilors pause the selection process until they've had a chance to choose more finalists.
Council continued with the process but ultimately rejected Gruber in a 4-3 vote.
The Mercer Group, Inc. terminated its contract with the city after the failed initial search. The termination appeared to have stemmed from tension between Honig and Higginbotham, Jr.
The two ultimately came to terms and Higginbotham, Jr. agreed to continue the search process. He presented the council with a new list of semi-finalists in early October, and the councilors selected four finalists: Daniel Alfonso, David Fraser, William Malinen and Lee Niblock.
The finalists met with each councilor individually and then appeared before the council as a whole at a public meeting on Nov. 2. After the councilors had one final opportunity to ask the candidates questions, they voted 6-1 to offer the position to Lee Niblock.