Whither Bay Oaks?
Courtesy of the Island Sand Paper
By Charlie Whitehead
I struggled a lot with this. I struggled first over whether to do it – I’m retired from journalism you know – and then how to.
But Missy is no dummy. She knew that I wouldn’t be able to resist digging into rumors of a threatened Bay Oaks future. She knows I’m still neck-deep in Beach Little League. She knows that I see Bay Oaks as the most important thing on Estero Island.
She also knows, as do town council members and anyone else who’s heard me talk, that I do not live on Estero Island and therefore I do not pay the taxes that flow to Bay Oaks and the rest of town government.
Now for things she might not know – well until now anyway.
I wrote about Bay Oaks before it opened. While I was stumbling around trying to learn how to be a reporter in the mid-1980’s the county was building Bay Oaks. I wrote about the grand opening. I hosted the free-throw shooting contest at that grand opening. I helped launch the first-ever adult basketball league at Bay Oaks – way back in those days when I could still play that game. My name is still on plaques hanging in the lobby.
I started umpiring on the Little League fields at Bay Oaks in the late 1980’s. I’ve been doing it ever since. I umped two games this week. I’ve had the great honor to have served as president, on the board and as a coach for several teams along the way.
My kids grew up at Bay Oaks. They went to the after-school program. They played flag football. They played in the youth basketball league. They went to ball games. They hung out in the teen room. My oldest daughter works at Bay Oaks now.
I even served as a member of the old Bay Oaks Advisory Board, both in the days when it was a Lee County facility and while the county and town were jointly running things. I designed the Frisbee golf course. I had the huge honor of knowing Al Oerter and Larry Costello, two fine men and sports giants who are no longer with us but who did great things for the community of Fort Myers Beach and whose names are on the weight room and one of the two basketball courts. I got to work a free basketball clinic with NBA Hall-of-Famer Costello (I still have the T-shirt) and was the master of ceremonies when one of the Bay Oaks courts was named in his honor. Perhaps the best thing I ever wrote was a remembrance of self-effacing 4-time Olympic Gold Medalist Oerter, whose money went to start the weightroom and whose artwork decorates the facility.
I scattered the ashes of a dear friend on the outdoor basketball court at Bay Oaks, and I attended a similar ceremony years later on the ball field for another friend.
I left the Bay Oaks board only when the newspaper I then worked for created new ‘ethics’ rules that prohibited newsroom employees from serving on appointed committees.
I knew Wade Jenkins, a Beach kid tragically taken too early whose name is on one of the ball fields, and Rod Vayo, who devoted hundreds of his hours to the youth of this community as an umpire before his time, too, was cut short, and whose name is on the other field.
In short this is a visceral, emotional issue for me. Missy knew that when she called.
And I understand the conflict that is inherent when a journalist is also an advocate. I have always drawn a very bright line between the two, and lately have given up journalism altogether. I even helped launch the new Beach Area Civic Association, becoming the group’s first president and laying my pen aside, so to speak. We feel we’re doing important work – definitely advocacy and not journalism.
I’m trying here to wear both hats. It’s hard. It may be impossible.
A few months ago there was a short-lived ‘Save Bay Oaks’ movement. Concerned Beach residents had heard rumors that the facility, including the rec center and the pool, might be closed down. Town officials scoffed at the rumors, assuring folks such a thing would not take place, and the group faded away.
After Missy called I started digging around and asking questions.
The Bay Oaks 5-year development plan, created by a town-appointed committee and blessed by the town council, expired in 2014. There is no new plan.
When the county handed ownership of Bay Oaks over to the town the county manager was Don Stilwell. Stilwell is now Fort Myers Beach town manager.
At the time county officials – Stilwell – said the county could no longer afford operating costs. There was talk then of closing the facility.
The transfer deal included a payment of $490,000 from the county. The agreement specifically mentioned the facility roof, air conditioner and floor, though it left it to the town to decide what Bay Oaks-related improvements the money would be used for. None of the discussed work has been done.
Four members of the Bay Oaks Rec Campus Advisory Board saw their appointed terms expire in October. They had asked repeatedly to be re-appointed. Those re-appointments were made at the March 7 town council meeting after I started asking questions of council members, staffers and BORCAB.
BORCAB members have heard the rumors. They say they feel ignored and marginalized.
During town budget hearings in November the town council said it intended to leave Bay Oaks funding intact while ‘a hard look’ was taken at its operation. At its next hearing the council adopted a budget that set parks and rec funding at $806,000, not the $931,000 that had been proposed. It axed the entire capitol budget and eliminated funding for the full-time senior program coordinator. The person in charge of the active group Bay Oaks Social Seniors.
Some council members and town staffers continue to refer to a ‘$900,000 subsidy to Bay Oaks’ that is fictional. According to documents provided to council the actual $806,000 parks and rec budget is partly offset by between $210,000 and $240,000 in annual revenue that the Bay Oaks (and pool) programs produce. That would make the ‘subsidy’ between $566,000 and $596,000, not $900,000.
I told the council March 7 that Florida Recreation and Parks Association numbers show the current parks and rec budget is $118.34 for each of the not quite 7,000 residents. The Florida average for towns of similar size is $160.21. The FRPA numbers were included in budget documents provided to council before the budget vote.
Stilwell helped me reach a different per-capita number, pointing out the Florida League of Cities pegged the town population at 6,200, not the more than 6,800 number the FRPA used. That means the current town budget spends $130 per capita, still around 20 percent less than the FRPA average for similar Florida towns.
Stilwell said a per-capita comparison is not the way to set a budget. A look at where parks and rec services are now, he said, what level of service is currently being delivered, is not where you start assessing and discussing the future. It’s what the budget can afford.
This next part is delicate.
On February 11 town parks and rec director Randy Norton got word his services would no longer be required. He considers it a termination and has said so repeatedly.
“I think they want to say it’s mutual,” said Norton. “When they come to you and tell you it’s not working out and you should start looking for a new job it’s not mutual.”
Three weeks later the town council had not been told about the termination of a department head. When I called to ask Stilwell if he was hiring a new director or if the director’s duties would be parceled-out to others he told me he had terminated no one and no one had resigned.
He says he wanted to give Norton an opportunity to find other work and resign rather than simply terminating him.
Stilwell also says there is no move afoot to close Bay Oaks and/or the pool.
I have known Don Stilwell since he came to Lee County in 1993. I wrote about his troubles and travails as Lee County manager, shared the campaign trail with him when we were both county commission candidates and observed him as town manager. He says he kept quiet about Norton’s termination in an attempt to keep a blemish off his employment record. I do not disbelieve him.
On March 7 council briefly discussed the situation, a discussion Stilwell called ‘important…but awkward.’
The exchange came when Council Member Summer Stockton brought up quarterly reports Stilwell gives to council, reports he says are time-consuming and seemingly of little use, since he’s never asked about them. He said he believes simply keeping council members in the loop on a regular, often daily basis would work better.
But Stockton said if that were the case she wouldn’t have learned about Norton’s departure – she described it as ‘forced to resign’ – three weeks after the fact.
Mayor Anita Cereceda said she was aware of the situation – I had asked her about it – and Council Member Rexann Hosafros pointed out the reports don’t address personnel matters – Stilwell’s responsibility – anyway.
Stilwell said he had concerns over the privacy expectations employees have in such cases. Cereceda cut the conversation off.
I like Randy Norton. I believe he’s tried hard to make things work. A former baseball coach himself, he took his own time to help my son work on his hitting. He may not be the right guy to be parks and rec director for the town right now – and it is Stilwell’s decision to make – but he is a good guy.
That said Stilwell and I have different priorities. He is concerned – quite rightly – with what he thinks and what council tells him is best for the government of the Town of Fort Myers Beach. I am concerned for what I believe is best for the community of Fort Myers Beach.
As I told council they are different things.
Norton has been forthcoming. He says his termination is no secret, and people have been coming to him, telling him they were sorry to hear of his termination and are fearful for the future of Bay Oaks. One of them is Dave Anderson, a BORCAB member, Beach Chamber chairman and local business owner. He was one of those re-appointed March 7.
“The town has said they’re looking at other uses for the property,” Anderson said. “There’s been talk of half the gym becoming an equipment barn.”
Anderson claims facility use has actually exceeded projections and goals in the expired 5-year plan. He said the BORCAB feels like its reports to and requests of town council have been ignored.
Betty Simpson is a long-time BORCAB member and its chair.
“I don’t know what’s going on. I really don’t,” she said. “But I’ve heard all kinds of odd rumors. One thing I hear that really bothers me is that the town needs Bay Oaks for parking public works vehicles. What kind of games are we playing?”
Simpson said it is true that she and BORCAB have expressed concerns over Bay Oaks operations. More and more consistent use of the 18,000 square foot facility and its almost 10 acres and better outreach and marketing have been recurrent themes.
Simpson said she was frustrated trying to get the committee members re-appointed. Her own term has not lapsed, though others have. She said she was told to come to the Feb. 15 council meeting to discuss the re-appointments.
She did, telling council the committee stood ready to start meeting again and get to work on a new 5-year plan. There were no appointments.
That was four days after Norton was given his notice.
“I’m totally frustrated,” Simpson said. “Don’t tell me to come to the meeting to get people re-appointed and then not do it.”
Simpson said she was also told to tell Norton and his staff to stop spreading rumors of Bay Oaks closing. She said she had heard the rumors, but not from Norton or the parks and rec staff.
“Why don’t they want us to meet?” Simpson asked. “What are they trying to hide?”
Rae Sprole is another BORCAB member re-appointed. Sprole is another business owner who’s also a past member of the Little League board. She said the original Bay Oaks plan was done by a town-appointed committee and the advisory board.
“I thought it was a good plan” she said. “But if public works takes over you can write off Bay Oaks. I swear to God they must have bought 30 vehicles.”
Stilwell has argued that Bay Oaks is functioning as a regional park, serving San Carlos Island and the mainland but drawing funding only from Estero Island property taxes.
The liaison between Bay Oaks and the council is Council Member Summer Stockton. Stockton works full-time and her attendance at BORCAB meetings has been spotty at best, she admits, though she says Norton and Simpson kept her up-to-date.
Stockton grew up on Fort Myers Beach, and said Bay Oaks was her second home as a child.
“Close Bay Oaks? I would never in a million years agree to that,” she said. “That was my other home. Every day after school it seemed I was the last one there, kicking the ball against the wall.”
All council members echo that sentiment to one degree or another. There will be, however, a hard look. There will be an examination of the operations and the expenses and the potential revenues.
The exchange when Stockton brought up re-appointing the BORCAB members may be foreshadowing.
“That’s on my list, too,” Cereceda said. “It leaves a sense in the community that there’s a pending action, and there is not.”
Cereceda said nothing has come before council in what she referred to as “let’s call it a reorganization phase.”
Councilman Alan Mandell, sitting in his final meeting after six years, remembered council talking about merging some of the advisory committees and whether all of them would be re-appointed.
Cereceda said that the work of some committees is done, but the BORCAB is still needed.
“Unless we plan to get rid of Bay Oaks, and I never heard a single person say to get rid of Bay Oaks,” she said.
Stilwell said there’s a lot of misinformation being repeated, and he didn’t think re-appointing the BORCAB members was the right thing to do.
While Stockton pushed to re-appoint Stilwell said he doesn’t want BORCAB to think they’re planning the facility’s future. He’s said he wants the facility’s future planned by staff, though some council members have said they’d prefer a ‘bottom-up’ process in which the community drives the plan and not a ‘top-down’ plan from staff.
“If they’re re-appointed then they think they’re involved in the planning, and we can’t keep operating the way we’ve been operating,” he said.
Hosafros said re-appointing the committee doesn’t mean it will be meeting. BORCAB missed its March meeting date with no quorum. Simpson said she would ask when another meeting could be scheduled.
Stockton said she’s worried.
“Don Stilwell was the one who gave Bay Oaks to us, saying the county couldn’t afford it” she said. “I think he’s doing the same thing now.”
For his part Stilwell said it would be ‘pretty stupid of Stilwell’ to contemplate something as radical as closing Bay Oaks with the sentiment council has expressed and with a council election pending.
“The only thing I’ve ever heard is that it’s a big gym that gets little use,” he said. “There’s never been even at the staff level a discussion about doing anything. We’ve been trying for several months to get our arms around it.”
“We collect under $3 million in property taxes and we spend $800,000 of it on Bay Oaks,” he said. “Council has to decide if that’s a good return on investment.”
He’s right. I personally believe it’s the best investment council can make of the property tax dollars it collects from island business owners and home owners. But the people elected to town council by the voters of Fort Myers Beach will decide. That’s their job. Stilwell and town staff will guide their discussions and provide information to aid their decisions. That’s their job.
And I won’t be trying to wedge both my advocate hat and my journalist hat onto my head at the same time again. That’s not my job.
But I will continue to advocate for the future of Bay Oaks and for the other things I think are best for the community we all share. I guess that is my job.