Year in Review, Part 2: ‘Year of the Cat’ on Marco Island

Lance Shearer

As the second half of the year began on Marco Island, the tide is out and local activity moves at a more leisurely pace. As we noted last issue, summertime is low tide here. The rhythm of the tides mirrors the slower rhythm of the seasons, as the island flows through the annual cycle of events.

More:Year in review, Part 1: High tide on Marco Island

More:City manager issues, police misconduct dominate tumultuous year on Marco Island

There are political upheavals, breaking news stories and occasional momentous events, but underneath, Marco Island and its residents have a series of regular happenings wash over them, giving each year a structure that repeats again and again.

Eventually, this might be remembered as the year the ‘Cat’ came back – but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Sort of bookending each other, two events signaled the end of the end of the year’s first half and the beginning of the second. Spammy Jammy at the Little Bar in Goodland marked the end of tourist season, the onset of summer and the annual hurricane season. As colorful as the “drinking village with a fishing problem” that hosts it, Spammy Jammy operates on the premise that we can ward hurricanes off by donning PJs and nighties and gathering at the Little Bar to sculpt and consume Spam, along with large amounts of alcohol. This year, unlike last year, it worked.

A bird returns to the nest with another stick for building. The Eagle Cam at the Marco Island Nature Preserve and Bird Sanctuary is live, just in time to watch a pair of eagles renovating the treetop nest.

Two weeks later, in another get-together for those who remain on the island year ’round, Uncle Sam’s Sand Jam was a day-long beach party at Residents’ Beach, followed by a colorful explosion of professional fireworks over the Gulf of Mexico. So, the slow season got off to a fast start, but those were kind of the last hurrahs for a while in terms of major public events. 1

Serious concerns intruded themselves on the island’s summer slumber with the vote on more ambulances on Aug. 28. By a margin over eight percent, Marco Island voters turned thumbs down on the idea of taking over local control of emergency medical services in the island city. Added taxation and uncertainty over city government’s ability to take on additional responsibility seemed to doom the measure, which proponents said was necessary to ensure a second ambulance stationed on Marco Island at all times.

Winner Erik Brechnitz celebrates his victory with his wife Nancy. Marco Island voters elected Erik Bredhnitz and Sam Young along with re-electing incumbent Victor Rios for four year terms on the Marco Island City Council.

Many Island voters liked the idea of a second ambulance on the island, but not additional taxes to pay for it. Retired surgeon Jerry Swiacki, chairman of Our City, Our Ambulances, which pushed for the proposal, joined other supporters in striking a philosophical note.

“We lost. The sun will come up tomorrow,” he said. “There’s a lot of voter dissatisfaction with our city council. People don’t think the city can manage it.”

With Hurricane Irma still casting a long shadow from a year earlier, two techie communications stories came in September. The Marco Eagle Sanctuary Foundation went live with their “eagle cam,” just in time for the arrival of a pair of eagles on the nest and ahead of the beginning of nesting season.

Jerry Swiacki and Linda Turner were pushing for "yes" ambulance votes on primary election day, Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018, at Marco Lutheran Church.

Over a year after they originally planned to be up and running, the Marco Eagle Sanctuary Foundation went live with their webcam pointed at the eagles’ nest in what used to be called Tract K off Tigertail Court. The hardware had to be put into place before nesting season started, so as not to disturb eagles getting ready to be parents.

The camera would have been installed a year earlier, had not the hurricane intervened. Irma was also the impetus for a low-power AM radio station the MIPD launched for emergency communications, so that even if power, cable and cell phones were down, anyone with a battery-powered radio, or a car with an AM radio, would be able to receive updates from the city. The station broadcasts on a frequency of 1690 on the AM band.

“It’s a low power station, but it covers the entire island,” said MIPD Capt. Dave Baer, who is managing the radio operation. “We have to test it to make sure it doesn’t go further than it’s allowed.” AM radio broadcasts, he noted, can experience interference from power lines, and can be blocked inside large concrete buildings, such as the garages of high-rise condos.

The antenna for the MIPD AM radio broadcasts sits on the roof of City Hall. The Marco Island Police Dept. is on the air with their low-power AM radio broadcasts, aimed at getting safety information out to island residents.

Tides, and the water that creates them, came to play in several stories in the middle of the year’s second half. In August, a red tide bloom or outbreak struck area waters, killing fish and causing problems for those with respiratory issues. Marco was spared the worst effects of the algae multiplying by the billions, which were felt more further north, but the condition did penetrate to Marco and surrounding estuaries and persist for months.

Estuaries Day, a national celebration, came to the Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center, with free admission, water-based activities such as kayaking and stand-up paddle board rides, and programs and exhibits at the center to demonstrate how intertwined our lives are with the natural world, even when we just go from condo to car to office and back. The 100,000 acres under management by Rookery Bay surround Marco on all sides, and the ecological stewardship the Reserve provides is of critical importance on this barrier island.

Fifth generation Marco Island fisherman Damas Kirk works on assembling a trap for blue crabs. The local stone crab season is off to a slow start for area fishermen, with longtime observers saying bad weather is needed for a good crab harvest.

This was brought home again on Oct. 15 with the beginning of stone crab harvesting season, another closely watched annual event. Early catches were paltry, driving up costs for this local delicacy and causing crabbers to leave their traps in the water longer to give the crustaceans more time to come and take the bait.

Halloween, and the “Spooktacular” at Mackle Park, provided welcome diversions, as seabirds began keeling over for reasons that were attributed to the red tide, which also caused dead porpoises to wash up on area beaches, and caused some tourists to stay away, although others relocated their vacations to Marco from harder hit spots further north.

With the City Council still unable to agree on even an interim city manager, Finance Director Gil Polanco remained on the job. The “manager mess” figured into the local elections in November, when Erik Brechnitz, Sam Young and Victor Rios were tapped for spots on the council, Rios re-elected and the other two for the first time. The other big issue was dealing with water quality.

Seeing guests on the pool deck is a welcome sight. The Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort & Spa has reopened for guests, in time for Thanksgivng and the upcoming winter season, following a year and a half, $60 million renovation.

Also in November, the Hilton resumed hotel operations. After a long, convoluted and expensive saga, nearly 18 months, and the outlay of $60 million, the Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort & Spa, which had been closed since June 2017 in the wake of an electrical fire and subsequent water damage, once again began welcoming visitors to Marco Island. Around the same time, the JW Marriott opened their wing of adults-only rooms and game rooms, the final phase of their years-long renovation and expansion.

Island veterans, focusing this year on female vets, were honored on Veterans Day, and leading up to Thanksgiving, islanders contributed food for the homeless and needy at St. Matthews, then followed it up by packing over 250,000 meals at the Meals of Hope event in the Marco Island Charter Middle School gymnasium.

File: A dining room in main the new addition to the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort.

With a segue way into December, Christmas Island Style was on the minds of Marco, with a host of events including boat parade, street parade, lighting of the municipal Christmas tree, and Santa’s arrival by helicopter at Mackle Park. The red and green of Christmas was in every way preferable to red tide and blue-green algae.

Early in December, after years of lobbying and preparation, the Key Marco Cat returned to the island for at least an extended visit, although formal festivities to welcome it were put off until the New Year, when rest of the part-time visitors from the north will be here.

Along with four Calusa masks, all excavated during the Frank Cushing dig of 1896, the cat, a six-inch-tall wood carving, has taken up residence in specially prepared enclosure, to preserve the fragile wooden artifacts from the ravages of the elements, air and light.

Another relic of Marco Island’s “Savage” past, although this one is very much alive and kicking, is also slated to be feted in the New Year, with a 100th birthday for beloved island architect, veteran and leader in singing “God Bless America,” set for January 5 at the Hilton.

Happy New Year to all (and especially you, Herb and Emily).