On brink of closing, new life and a new future for Lehigh senior center

By: Bill Smith, News-Press.     The Friday afternoon karaoke and dance party at the Lehigh Acres Senior Citizens Center was more crowded than usual last week.

The dancers and singers were joined by others, filling the center’s function room on Plaza Drive, as they awaited  a “very important meeting on the future” of the facility.

 

Word had spread about the depth of a financial crisis that began when its major sponsor, Lehigh Acres Medical Center, dramatically reduced its financial support. Many were aware that the money would run out Jan. 1.

Now, it doesn’t appear that will happen.

“We are not leaving this building, number one,” said Alan Neidermeier, a member of the center’s board of directors. “We are also not seeing any changes, especially major changes in our programs that we currently have.”

The Senior center will be operated by Lee County. Commissioners are expected to commit $248,000 to fund programs it its first year, and an initial $215,000 to be spent on capital projects as they can be scheduled.

Its manager, Melissa Barry, said after the announcement that the facility could not have survived beyond the end of 2018 without help. Her job responsibilities had gone from coordinating volunteers and programs, helping people stay involved and creating an atmosphere that made sure even the newest members were welcomed to fundraising to keep an important community organization alive.

“This is where they find their friendships, this is where they find the communication, their interaction. If we had lost this place it would have been devastation to a lot of people,”  Barry said.

The road to saving the center started when Lehigh resident Mike Welch, a member of the Lehigh municipal district commission, called Barry and said he was bringing Lee County Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass in for a tour.

Barry  saw the visit as a chance to get some county help in replacing some flooring. The tour came and she pitched Pendergrass for floors.

“Cecil came in and I was pushing for that, so I was telling him the history and all that, and because of that he was able to see what we did,”  Barry said. “He says ‘really this is an awesome place, here’s my card, we’ll look at getting this as a line item on the budget.’ He was like ‘let’s do it.'”

Pendergrass said he was quickly convinced that the county needed to help.

“When I heard that there was a possibility that this center might be closing up after Jan. 1, I said that cannot happen,” Pendergrass told the crowd of some 200 seniors. “I cannot sleep at night knowing you had nowhere to go — in a community as big as Lehigh’s 150,000 residents, you can not have no place to go.”

Pendergrass promised the center would stay open, and told the approving audience that Barry would remain to manage the center, and would do it as a county employee who could devote herself to programs and people.

It took months of talks to develop the plan under which, Pendergrass explained to the members, the senior center will become part of the county Parks and  Recreation Department.

“We can provide more activities and hopefully grow even larger,”  he said. “Transportation — there are people we can’t get here, we need to work with our LeeTran and Passport (ride program) to get more people here so they can have access to the center.”

For the seniors who are members it was a relief; for many the activities and the socialization is important to their welfare.

“When my wife and I moved down from Iowa, I said we’re not going down there to sit and rot,” said Darrell Fratzke, a member of the center’s board. “We joined this place and my kids were wondering if they’re ever going to catch us at home.”

The transition from a private group to the county will mean some changes and a bit more formality in its governance. The 13-member board of directors will be replaced with a politically appointed five member advisory group.

Barry, a mother of six with a degree in elementary education, became director of the center after 15 years raising her children and doing volunteer work. After five years, she sounds an optimistic tone about the future.

“”I cannot explain how, just being able to meet the people here, I want this place to flourish,” she said.  “Right now, the most important thing is that everyone knows that we are going to be here and we are looking to expand in any way we can.”

New programs will include more access to social services through the county, and more night programs for Lehigh seniors who have to find part-time jobs during the day to survive.

Meanwhile, the new flooring has been installed.

Barry sees a brighter future for the center with some of the changes that come from joining a more formal organization.

“The biggest problem I am going to have when the county comes in — I’m a hugger, that’s just who I am,” she said. “If I have to stop hugging to get this place saved, then that’s what I will do.”

Conservation 20/20 must meet residents’ vision

By:  Cecil Pendergrass, News-Press.  This week, the Lee County Board of Commissioners had the opportunity to discuss our successful Conservation 20/20 program. I voted “no” on administrative agenda Item #2 that recommends changes to the program’s application review criteria and approval process.

I voted against this proposed change in order to keep the integrity of the program that is currently in place at the will and approval of the voters and the policy direction of the County Commission. I do not want to see extra credit given to land acquisition for the use of utility projects or storm water storage.

I support water treatment, but not at the cost of our Conservation lands, wildlife habitat and taxpayers’ dollars. In the last 6 years, I have had the opportunity to vote in favor of every conservation land purchase that has come before me for consideration into the 20/20 program. I proudly voted to place the 20/20 question back on the 2016 ballot so that voters could reaffirm their support.

As we know, the voters overwhelmingly approved of Lee County continuing the program and as a straw poll, non-binding referendum. As commission chairman, we have now set policy to acquire conservation lands to protect our quality of life in Lee County.

As of today, there is a total of 95,290 acres held in Conservation (including state and federal land), covering 21% of the county. In the last 4 years, we have acquired 5,724 acres of land from development requirements set by this current board; lands the developer had to maintain in conservation at no additional cost to you or me, the taxpayer.

Our environment economy is still healthy, yet we all know the challenges still ahead as we address the red tide and blue-green algae inflicting our beloved beaches and waterways. The violation of our county ordinance 08-08, which bans the use of fertilizer containing phosphorus and nitrogen during the summer months, is wreaking havoc in our water.

We must continue to protect our natural resources by reducing the nutrient loads from runoff coming from developed areas. It is so critical to have programs like Conservation 20/20 in place that give us the ability to actively pursue the conservation lands that can provide green space, homes for habitat and reduce storm water from entering our waterways.

In 2015, the commission adopted Ordinance 15-08, which provided a number of amendments to the 20/20 program. Ordinance 15-08 reiterates that the Conservation 20/20 program is an ongoing county activity financed through the county’s general fund.

In this law, we also adopted a rule that states the fund must be replenished once it drops below $40 million. The 20/20 acquisition fund balance is currently $47 million. For the fiscal year 2018/2019 upcoming budget hearings, County Manager Roger Desjarlais has proposed an additional $3.5 million into the 20/20 fund. Do I think that is enough? I absolutely do not and I look forward to our future conversations about funding during the budget hearings this coming month.

It continues to be my privilege to represent over 720,000 (and counting) citizens of Lee County. I remain dedicated to a life of public service as your commissioner and chairman.

Vendor makes plans to clean up Southwest Florida waterways

By:  Samantha Sosa, Fox4,  Scripps Media, Inc.

Lee County officials are in talks with a vendor to provide cleanup services for red algae in our waterways. The state will reimburse Lee County for the cost of the cleanup up to a certain amount, that comes from a 3 million dollar grant as part of Governor Rick Scott’s State of Emergency.

Commissioner Pendergrass stated that the canal areas with little to no tidal flow will be attacked first and he  will continue to pressure state and federal officials to complete projects that will help with long term solutions pertaining  to Lake Okeechobee releases and algae.

https://www.fox4now.com/video/news/vendor-makes-plans-to-cleanup-southwest-florida-waterways

Lee County negotiating contract with vendor to clean up algae

By:   Meghan Bragg,  NBC 2 News

Lee County Commission Chairman Cecil Pendergrass calls for an  emergency session  to place Lee County under a state of emergency for algae clean up to begin immediately.

http://www.nbc-2.com/story/38721381/lee-county-negotiating-contract-with-vendor-to-clean-up-algae

County commissioners ask congress to fund water clean-up efforts

By:  Britni McDonald and Erica Brown, WINK News

Lee County Board of County Commissioners signed a resolution urging the United States Congress to create a dedicated funding source for the Central Everglades Planning Project and the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan; urging the United States Army Corps of Engineers to expedite completion of Herbert Hoover Dike reconstruction and to update the Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule; urging the president of the United States to direct the United States Army Corps of Engineers to exercise maximum flexibility within current regulations to direct Lake Okeechobee water discharges away from the Caloosahatchee River Estuary.

http://www.winknews.com/2018/06/25/county-commissioners-ask-congress-to-fund-water-clean-up-efforts/

Lee County officials taking steps to better water conditions

By Jaclyn Bevis, WBBH/WZVN (Waterman Broadcasting)

Lee County Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass heads to Washington, DC to attend a congressional briefing on Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) and Lake Okeechobee discharges, and their impact to our communities and tourism industry.

http://www.nbc-2.com/story/38384121/lee-county-officials-taking-steps-to-better-water-conditions

Lee County hosts Catamaran World Championship

By Brenna Weick,  WBBH/WZVN (Waterman Broadcasting)

Lee County Commissioners have agreed to host the 2019 Hobie 16 Catamaran World Championship.  The competition will bring in an estimated $4 million to Lee County businesses while the sponsorship fee will be paid  strictly by tourists.

http://www.nbc-2.com/story/38217951/lee-county-agrees-to-pay-250k-to-host-catamaran-world-championship#vuukle-emote

Water quality, roads, transportation my priorities

By Cecil Pendergrass, News-Press Editorial

It is an honor to serve you this year as the chairman of the Lee Board of County Commission. I truly believe our county is the best county in Florida because of you.

It still seems surreal that just six months ago, we were faced with Irma’s devastation. The country witnessed the strength and fellowship from individuals, community organizations and government agencies during and after the storm.

As we continue to recover, we must also continue to educate and focus our efforts on improvement for the betterment of our quality of life.  A harsh reality that we faced was flooding throughout the whole county. Heavy rainfalls in late August and during the hurricane in early September exceeded the capacity for our storm water system already in place.

As a result, Lee County government is working with other agencies and municipalities to address and resolve any future flooding issues for a long-term fix. We immediately cleaned up debris from our waterways that contributed to the flooding and are now in the process of identifying causes and lifelong solutions. Local engineers and county staff are out in the field collecting data and information from all major watersheds throughout the county. In doing this, we can provide immediate and longstanding repairs to the stormwater system, ultimately reducing future flooding. For more information on this initiative, please visit www.leegov.com/irma.

I continue to maintain focus on my goals for Lee County in 2018: transportation and safety, water quality and conservation lands, job creation and reduction of regulation costs.

We need and will build roads. The county commission has made transportation a major priority, which comes with a price tag of $245 million. Over the next five years, we are fast tracking the tier 1, or high priority, transportation projects that are needed countywide.

The exciting aspect of it we will not be raising your taxes, bonding or borrowing to pay for the projects. We are using a funding mechanism called Growth Increment Funding (GIF), which is taking a portion of funds from property taxes that is generated from the sale of a commercial and residential property to fund the projects. The GIF mechanism is a fair and balanced approach, with growth truly paying for growth.

As a result, we are able to expedite much needed road improvements. In Lehigh Acres, we are funding road resurfacing at a cost of $5 million a year for the next 5 years. We are also on schedule for the widening of Homestead Road to a four-lane road with a six-foot sidewalk and the widening of State Road 82 to six lanes from Ortiz Avenue to Lee and Colonial Boulevard. For a list of all county road projects, please visit www.leegov.com/dot/roadwatchupdate.

All road projects are designed with the Complete Streets model in mind, which requires $4.5 million over the next 5 years with a total of $10.6 million for safe access for all pedestrians and bicyclists. I will continue my efforts this year for major roadway improvements and push for Corkscrew Road to be included in our Capital Improvement Project (CIP) list along with the extension of Alico Road to SR 82.

As a lifelong resident of Lee County, I understand the importance of water quality for our future and will continue to work with our state and federal elected officials and agencies to garner support and funding for our local and regional water quality projects. The C-43 reservoir and GS-10 project are crucial for storing and cleaning water that comes from the Caloosahatchee before it reaches our irreplaceable estuaries and beaches.

Locally, we will continue to reduce nitrogen at 54,395 pounds per year and invest $15 million in local projects over the next five years. I will continue to be a voice for our area and support reducing fresh water flow from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River.

It is vital that we preserve our green space for our quality of life here in Lee County. In the last 4 years, this Commission has purchased over 5,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land for our Conservation 20/20 Program. The County most recently acquired Edison Farms, a 4,000-acre parcel in South Lee County, which will serve as a jewel for the 20/20 program and a great destination for public access.

It is an honor to continue to serve you and Lee County, the greatest place to call home.

Cecil Pendergrass is chair of the Lee County Commissioners.

Lee Board of County Commissioners closes on Edison Farms purchase

by VOEadmin
Lee Board of County Commissioners has completed the purchase of about 4,000 acres in southern Lee County – commonly known as Edison Farms – as a Conservation 20/20 preservation site.

The $42.4 million purchase ranks as the second-largest single parcel purchased by the Board since the Bob Janes Preserve, which is 5,620 acres.

County commissioners have made preserving Edison Farms a top legislative priority for the past two years and voted unanimously for the purchase on Sept. 19.

It is an example of the type of environmentally critical land that the Conservation 20/20 program was created to protect and that voters overwhelmingly endorsed with an 84 percent majority late last year.

Edison Farms is adjacent to Hidden Cypress Preserve, a Conservation 20/20 preserve, and lands maintained by the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed. The land includes habitat for listed species such as the Florida panther and the woodstork.

The acquisition of the Edison Farms parcel will:

Protect a significant, diverse population of wildlife and plant communities.
Assist with the distribution of freshwater flows in a natural wetland slough system and adjacent uplands that are part of the headwaters to Estero Bay, the state’s first aquatic preserve.
Help sustain the region’s groundwater levels, a vital component to the area’s drinking water supply.
Facilitate the restoration of historic flow-ways in the region, providing flood relief to those impacted from the existing altered system.
Provide opportunities for nature-based recreation in the southern part of Lee County.
Next steps include an inventory and assessment of the land for restoration options and public access options. The Conservation Land Acquisition and Stewardship Advisory Committee (CLASAC), which was a valuable partner in the acquisition process, will continue to provide input on management of the site.

VOEadmin | December 5, 2017 at 11:26 am | URL: https://wp.me/p6kK12-1UR

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Lee Board of County Commissioners closes on landmark preserve purchase

Media contact: Betsy Clayton, APR/CPRC
Communications Director
Lee County Government
239-826-4606
bclayton@leegov.com

Lee Board of County Commissioners closes on landmark preserve purchase

Fort Myers, FL, Dec. 5, 2017 – Lee Board of County Commissioners has completed the purchase of about 4,000 acres in southern Lee County – commonly known as Edison Farms – as a Conservation 20/20 preservation site.

The $42.4 million purchase ranks as the second-largest single parcel purchased by the Board since the Bob Janes Preserve, which is 5,620 acres.

County commissioners have made preserving Edison Farms a top legislative priority for the past two years and voted unanimously for the purchase on Sept. 19.

It is an example of the type of environmentally critical land that the Conservation 20/20 program was created to protect and that voters overwhelmingly endorsed with an 84 percent majority late last year.

Edison Farms is adjacent to Hidden Cypress Preserve, a Conservation 20/20 preserve, and lands maintained by the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed. The land includes habitat for listed species such as the Florida panther and the woodstork.

The acquisition of the Edison Farms parcel will:

  • Protect a significant, diverse population of wildlife and plant communities.
  • Assist with the distribution of freshwater flows in a natural wetland slough system and adjacent uplands that are part of the headwaters to Estero Bay, the state’s first aquatic preserve.
  • Help sustain the region’s groundwater levels, a vital component to the area’s drinking water supply.
  • Facilitate the restoration of historic flow-ways in the region, providing flood relief to those impacted from the existing altered system.
  • Provide opportunities for nature-based recreation in the southern part of Lee County.

Next steps include an inventory and assessment of the land for restoration options and public access options. The Conservation Land Acquisition and Stewardship Advisory Committee (CLASAC), which was a valuable partner in the acquisition process, will continue to provide input on management of the site.

Here is what Lee County Commissioners said about the Edison Farms purchase:

District 1 John Manning:

“This purchase, many years on the horizon, is as monumental for the environment of Lee County as there has ever been by a local government in Florida. I have been blessed to have helped start Conservation 20/20 and now this acquisition is the pinnacle of the accomplishments of this program.”

District 2 / Chairman Cecil Pendergrass:

“It’s an exciting time for Lee County and the Conservation 20/20 program. For years, the county was unsuccessful in acquiring Edison Farms and I am proud to be a part of the current Board of County Commissioners that was successful in achieving this property for conservation. Edison Farms, roughly 4,000 acres, will serve as the second-largest public asset in Lee County and will ultimately deter urban sprawl.” 

District 3 / Vice Chairman Larry Kiker:

“Lee county citizens have been very consistent with their direction to Lee County: Purchase properties for preservation and conservation. As a result of this strategic purchase, future generations will enjoy and benefit from this historic accomplishment, a legacy for Lee County to be proud of.”

District 4 Commissioner Brian Hamman:

“From the moment I joined the board, my colleagues and I have been working to make this purchase happen in a way that makes sense to the taxpayers of Lee County. With this purchase, the current commissioners have preserved our most sensitive environmental lands in the DRGR, essentially going from zero to now having 80 percent in conservation. Opportunities like the purchase of Edison Farms are exactly what voters were thinking of when they approved, by an overwhelming majority, continuing our 20/20 program.”

District 5 Frank Mann:

“In the many years I have been allowed to serve the citizens of Lee, preservation of environmentally sensitive lands has remained for me a personal priority. In all of the thousands of acres we have successfully saved for future generations, few would equal the size and quality of the Edison Farms purchase. This is a fantastic day for Lee County and its yet-to-arrive citizens of tomorrow.”

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Note to media: Commissioners will be celebrating the closing at their regularly scheduled 9:30 a.m. meeting today. Or if you are unable to make it by 9:30, commissioners typically are available immediately following the BoCC meeting for interviews and comments.