The Breeze at 60
Before Cape Coral was officially a city, the first residents to call home what was then little more than 100 square miles of scrub brush and vacant land had a newspaper to call their own.
Beginning as a one-page, mimeographed sheet detailing weddings, birthday celebrations and fishing tournaments, to a 16-page weekly newspaper with solely a community focus, to its current full-color, 40-plus page, twice-a-week format concentrating on local happenings in print as well as state, national and world news on line, the Cape Coral Breeze has certainly evolved with the city and Lee County.
The paper dates back to shortly after a trip to Southwest Florida in the 1950s by a pair of hair-products salesmen turned developers, Jack and Leonard Rosen. They flew the area before dropping a coin out of pilot Ed Wilson’s plane near the raw acreage of Redfish Point where the community of Cape Coral soon would grow. The brothers created the Gulf Guaranty Land and Title Company, began cutting canals, paving roads and selling small lots — mainly to retirees “up north.”
Advertising space was secured in newspapers and trade publications in northern cities, and potential suitors were “wowed” with spectacular fly-overs in private planes while being spoon-fed the benefits of a future bathed in sunshine.
Now legendary for their sales techniques, the Rosens built such a legacy for themselves that they were out of the picture by the time Cape Coral was incorporated as a city of 15,000 residents in 1970, having sold their interests to Allentown, Penn. based GAC (at that time called General Acceptance) the previous year for a substantial sum of money.
The budding city’s paper began long before that.
According to The Breeze history compiled from published accounts and previous interviews with those who helped birth a paper marking 60 years this month: (December 2021)
In 1959, Gulf American began putting out a newsletter called the Cape Coral Sun. Little more than a promotional vehicle intended to entice investors to make the journey south, checkbooks in hand, it also kept the small handful of early residents informed of what was going on in their fledgling community. The late Eileen Bernard, who later authored “Lies That Came True,” a chronicle of the early days of Cape Coral, served as editor.
An early Cape resident, Col. Dick Crawford, felt a community newspaper was needed for residents who had already established themselves here. Crawford, as community relations director for Gulf American, along with his wife, Sally, produced the first issue of The Breeze in May of 1961. Crawford filled the role of owner/editor/publisher, and his wife served as “correspondent,” essentially writing tidbits of information on family and club activities, weddings, birthday celebrations, and the like. The earliest issues, such as The Sun, were a one-page, mimeographed sheet, and the Crawfords operated out of what is now the ground-floor of the former Graf Building. After a brief hiatus they took up residence in the Cape Coral Shopping Center and, on Dec. 14, 1961, the first printed copy of the Breeze was run off. In January 1962 Bob Finkernagel came aboard as a partner with the Crawfords, and in April of that year Crawford stepped down from his position with Gulf American to devote himself full time to The Breeze.
Aage Schroder, who passed in 2005 and whose family was the 12th to settle in Cape Coral, had recalled Crawford with fondness. One of the builders of the Cape Coral Shopping Center, he let Crawford use a back room in his office to put out The Breeze.
“Dick Crawford was a good friend of mine, I knew him and Sally very well,” Schroder said in a 2001 interview with The Breeze. “He would have to take the news to Naples to get it printed up, and occasionally I would go with Dick to do that.” Schroder also considered Finkernagel as a friend and occasional card playing partner.
“He was a military man, he was always acting like a military man,” Bernard said of Crawford in an interview before her passing. “He was a dictatorial person, and I arranged with Connie Mack and Kenny Schwartz (early Gulf American executives) to be separate from him.”
She had high praise of Finkernagel.
“He was very, very bright,” Bernard said. “He was the smartest, most intelligent man I ever met.”
Bernard described The Sun as a “sales tool” that was mailed out all over the country. “At one time we had the second largest circulation in the State of Florida,” she said. That publication was discontinued around 1973, after GAC declared bankruptcy “After that, they let us all go,” Bernard said.
In 1968, The Breeze moved to a new building on Southeast 47th Terrace, which it later sold to the American Legion, Post #90, when it moved into its present location on Del Prado Boulevard in August 1975. The year before, The Breeze was sold to Ogden Newspapers of Wheeling, W.VA, and by the time the new building was up and running it housed 66 employees, including Fred Cull, who was brought in by Ogden as publisher. On Monday, Nov. 3, 1975, the first edition of the Cape Coral Daily Breeze hit the streets as an evening publication.
“Coming out of the GAC days, it was more of a P.R. publication, more so than a hard news publication,” said Cull in an interview prior to his passing in 2015. “In those days, there was very little hard news, and crime was at a minimum. Everyone knew everyone.”
Cull’s arrival predated The Breeze becoming a weekly by about a year, but changes were almost immediate.
“The first thing we did was take it to twice a week, Sunday and Thursday,” he said previously. “From that point, we were gearing ourselves toward being our own master.” Composition, at that time, was done on Sanibel at the offices of the Island Reporter.
“They set all the type, we laid out the pages, did the pagination,” Cull recalled. At that time, the paper was still printed in Naples, Cull said. Shortly after, The Breeze set up shop on Del Prado in ’75 and went to five days a week.
“Going from a weekly to a daily was no mean trick,” Cull said. “The News-Press was a morning publication, and to hit them head-on, the conclusion was we couldn’t compete.” Thus, when the first issue of the daily paper hit the stands, it was as an evening vehicle.
“The news content was chicken-dinner journalism,” Cull said. “Real estate, and whose kid hit the game-winning home run.”
Cull said that one of the highlights of his watch, which came to an end in 1988, was in 1976 when Cable News Network was first launched. How did this impact the Breeze?
“We leased a channel and brought CNN in under our sponsorship,” said Cull. “We sold advertising, and had CNN news on the Breeze Channel. We were the first paper in the company to embrace such a thing. We then billed ourselves as a daily, and at the time the cable company had very few channels, so it was very prominent that we were supporting CNN.”
As a result, The Breeze won the first annual Ted Turner locally-generated advertising award. Despite these successes, the concept came to an end sometime around 1985.
“It was not a great profit center, but a good source of recognition,” said Cull.
The construction of what is now the home of The Breeze, as well as the launching of the Lee County Shopper rank among the accomplishments of which Cull was most proud.
“We were all alone out there at the time,” he said of the company’s earliest days on Del Prado Boulevard. “People were saying why did you build so far out? It built out around us.”
The Shopper, Cull said, was profitable almost immediately.
“It hit the streets as a profitable entity and never looked back,” he said. “We showered Lee County with 60,000 of those things.”
Chris Schroder, Aage’s son, recalled taking photos around the community as a teenager and contributing them to The Breeze.
“Car accidents and different things like that,” he said. Schroder would rush home and develop them in his make-shift darkroom that was set up in his family’s fallout shelter. “Most of the time they would put them in the paper,” he said.
Schroder reminisced about a time when he and childhood friend and fellow Cape pioneer Elmer Tabor took a picture of flood conditions on Cape Coral Parkway and submitted it for publication. “It was probably 2 feet under water,” he said. “We ran down and grabbed somebody’s sign from a canal that said ‘Slow No Wake’ and stuck it there and it made The Breeze.”
Paul Sanborn, who was hired by Gulf American in 1962 to replace Crawford as Community Relations director, said The Breeze was mailed up north to people who had bought property in the Cape as a way of keeping them abreast of what was going on. “The Breeze served a purpose for them, it made them feel they had contact with the community where they would live in the future,” Sanborn, who passed in 2017, said in a prior interview with The Breeze.
Sanborn credited Ogden and Cull with helping The Breeze make the transition from solely a community paper and marketing tool similar to the Sun to more of a news vehicle.
“Over the years the paper went from a company paper talking about what Gulf American was doing to a vehicle that kept the subscribers informed of what the city was doing.” Sanborn noted that The Breeze’s focus on community events gave readers a clear choice between it and the other daily. “They would do things like running photos of club awards, and the News-Press doesn’t do that,” he said in that previous interview. “That was of interest to the residents.”
Sanborn added that the many physical changes to the paper over the years helped as well.
“Mastheads and type style has changed, and I think those transformations have been beneficial,” he said.
Don Langer, who started with the company in 1974 as a salesman and eventually moved up to sales manager, said in an earlier interview that when The Breeze took occupancy of its current office in ’75 there was already talk about making the paper a daily. He wanted distribution in the morning to compete with the News Press.
Langer agreed with Sanborn that much of the credit for transforming the Breeze into a viable news source should go to Cull. He said when Fred came down, that’s when the growth of the paper started. The Sanibel Island Reporter and the Pine Island Eagle, also Breeze publications, came on board during Cull’s tenure.
Today, the Breeze Newspapers puts out a host of weekly and monthly publications in addition to The Breeze, including the Fort Myers Beach Observer and Beach Bulletin, the Sanibel-Captiva Islander and Island Reporter, the Lehigh Acres Citizen and the Pine Island Eagle as well as a monthly news magazine, North Fort Myers Living. All of these papers also have news web sites that are updated as news happens.
The Breeze has had seven publishers in the past 60 years: Cull, 1974 to May 1987, who oversaw the opening of the Del Prado office; Dave Frame from May 1987 to March 1991; Joel Jenkins from March 1991 to September 1995; Harry Pappas from September 1995 to May 1999; Jack Glarrow from May 1999 to August 2011; Scott Blonde, August 2011 to May 2019 and Ray Eckenrode, who became publisher in July 2019 and currently serves in that role.
As the news realm has shape shifted over the years, the main focus of The Breeze has not yielded. And that is to bring readers hyper-local stories and information no matter what platform.
Breeze Newspapers Executive Editor Valarie Harring, who has served in the role since 2000 and has been with the company since ’96, said, “The industry has changed, our focus has not. We will continue to cover the Cape and we will take advantage of all new tools — online, mobile access, social media — to inform our readers in ways not even envisioned when a simple print newsletter became first a weekly newspaper and then a community daily.”
While many hard-copy newspapers have gone by the wayside as the world melds into a more virtual setting, The Breeze has continued to cover the Cape for six decades and is unwavering in its mission to serve one of the fastest growing cities in America.
“The Breeze is a community newspaper and a community asset but it’s also a business and we’re very proud to be a business that survived not one, but two seismic events in the past decade and a half, the economic crisis of 2008 and the current global pandemic,” Eckenrode said. “It takes a special kind of dedication and perseverance to get through those kinds of events and we’re so thankful to our Breeze employee family for helping the paper survive and thrive again, as it did after the foreclosure crisis and as it will again after COVID.”
Breeze Editor Chris Strine, who has been with the company for 38 years, said he’s seen a lot of change and adaptation take place throughout the decades.
“When the Breeze started, the Cape community was small but growing,” he said. “At the time, one of our early publishers, Fred Cull, called what we offered ‘chicken dinner journalism.’ We were an evening newspaper that was filled with the news of the day — what was happening, who was moving here and how many were arriving weekly, how and where the community was growing, most often lighter news and announcements.
“While we continue to stay true to our roots and provide much of the same news as in the past, our coverage scope has changed, like the rest of the industry. Today, instead of just providing news in print, we now work to also provide news online. Our print publication days have changed, but we are a daily newspaper online — same news just offered in different formats. Cape Coral continues to grow at a rapid rate and we work daily to keep up with it.”
Advertising Director Laurie Ragle, who joined The Breeze in 2019 and has 24 years in the newspaper industry, said the birth of the Internet changed the landscape of journalism and advertising.
“I was there when newspapers had to go online in order to reach digital readers,” she said. “Newspapers nationally have seen print newspaper readership decline, but we’ve learned that did not mean they didn’t want to stay connected to the community. They just wanted to do it in a different way. With that, came The Breeze offering digital marketing services that are not traditional to newspapers, yet help achieve the same goal of reaching local consumers. I have watched many events that changed our country such as 9/11, the real estate bust, and most recently COVID-19. With each of these events, newspapers have had to quickly pivot to remain relevant. The good news is that community newspapers like The Breeze have done a good job remaining as the main news source for their area. Our newspaper here in Cape Coral has experienced very local readership over the years and through these events. We intend to continue doing that by providing our readers with advertising that will help with their everyday life.”
The future is ever changing, and no matter what the next decade, or 60 years, holds for The Breeze, the office on Del Prado remains committed to local news and information.
“The future of the Cape Coral Breeze is as bright as the future of the city itself,” Harring said. “The way we deliver the news will continue to evolve, the format in which is presented will change, but we will continue to do what we do best: We will cover the Cape.”
Strine took a similar view.
“I believe there will always be a market for community newspapers, which provide the news other media outlets doesn’t offer. The Breeze has always been a community newspaper and I think that will continue for years to come,” he said.
–Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj