Incorporation: from dream to reality
With a growing population approaching 15,000 and general concerns that the Lee County government was not meeting the city’s needs and services, Cape Coral residents decided in the late 1960s that it was time for the city to become incorporated.
“Cape Coral was the dream of the Rosen Brothers, but we grew so quickly (incorporation) was the right thing to do for us to prosper,” said longtime resident and business owner Gloria Tate. “We had to learn how to build a city and plan for its growth.”
Led by the Cape Coral Civic Association, which appointed a charter committee to research the details, voters ratified the incorporation plan that became official on Aug. 18, 1970. This month marks the 45th anniversary of that important date in Cape Coral’s history.
“A lot of the residents at that time were seasonal,” said former mayor Joe Mazurkiewicz. “The vote for incorporation was done in August so only the year-round residents were voting. The issues that drove incorporation was the need for home rule authority and to be able to control zoning so we could be recognized as a viable, sustainable community which Lee County wasn’t doing. 45 years later not much has changed.”
Seven men were chosen by voters to serve as the city’s first council members.
They were: Cleo F. Snead (District 1), Paul Flickinger (D2), J. Chandler Burton (D3), Robert G. South (D4), Gordon A. Berndt (D5), Lyman G. Moore (D6) and “Casey” Jablonski (D7). Flickinger was named by the council as the city’s first mayor and was re-elected the following year. In 1975, businessman Don Graf was the first mayor elected by voters and served two years.
Incorporation talks began as early as 1963 but lost support until formal discussions started up in 1969.
“There were no services and no access to Fort Myers,” said Tate, who was elected to City Council from 1996-2005. “We needed police, fire and emergency services. It took an hour and a half to get an ambulance. Before the first Cape Coral Bridge span opened (1964) we had to go north on Del Prado, get on Pine Island Road into North Fort Myers and take Old 41 to go into Fort Myers to the Catholic Church. To go to the beach we went farther down from there, all the way around and back.”
Tate said building the Cape Coral Bridge opened up a new world for city residents and gave them new freedoms.
The Civic Association’s importance as a policy making body in Cape Coral diminished as the city government took over the day-to-day operations. Membership in the organization declined as more people became more interested in the legal governing body.
* From vision to a full fledged city
During Tate’s tenure on council two controversial projects gained approval at Cape Harbour and the Westin Resort at Marina Village.
“Very controversial projects at the time,” Tate said. “With high rise buildings those two projects changed the dynamics of this city. They brought us a hotel, marinas and waterfront dining that we were desperate for.”
Tate said recently incorporated Bonita Springs doesn’t know anything about the kind of struggles Cape Coral went through.
“There were 200 people when I came here,” she said. “It was a two-lane dirt road with no schools or churches. The Yacht Club was all things to all people. My fondest memory is of the Teen Center at the Yacht Club. That’s where we all grew up together. It eventually was taken away when some teens got out of hand and later it went to the old folks. We got it back as the Rotino Center.”
As Cape Coral made the transition from a Rosen brothers’ vision to a full fledged city, the earliest of the municipal pioneers were faced with the challenge of delivering the services that a city – newly formed or otherwise – is required to offer.
“We needed to incorporate to begin to regulate standards for building homes and businesses,” said Tate. “I don’t think the Rosens ever envisioned this. They sold single-family residential lots to anyone and everyone. With so many preplatted lots it’s hard to build commercial. Those same problems haven’t gone away, we’ve just gotten smarter about it.”
Many Cape residents in the late 1960s believed they were being largely ignored by Lee County government. Road repair, maintenance issues, representation – these are but a few of the complaints Cape residents had in those early days, according to city historian Paul Sanborn. He added not only Lee County, but Gulf American Corporation provided some basic services, acting as the city government before there ever was one.
The new government asserted itself as a viable municipality. People began stepping up and tackling the challenge of public service.
By the time Mazurkiewicz, the city’s longest serving mayor at 10 years, took office in 1983 the city was on its fourth temporary permit under the 1977 Clean Water Act.
“Our system was overloaded both in volume and quality,” said Mazurkiewicz. “There was a water plant at the golf course with a capacity of 2 million gallons a day and the original RO plant was 3.2 million capacity. The membranes decided to go sour at the same time and we scrambled to supply 1 million gallons a day. We basically had to shut it down, so we had no choice but to deal with the utilities expansion.”
With that, Mazurkiewicz became known as the father of the impact fee. His other major contribution while in office was leading the adoption of the city’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan.
“Impact fees were a funding source that was reliable for us to build infrastructure,” said Mazurkiewicz. “When I took office we were a city of 104 square miles and when I left it was 110 square miles. Impact fees on each permit allowed us to fund capital infrastructure for water and sewer, parks & rec, fire department and EMS.”
Much has been accomplished in Cape Coral over the past 45 years, a mere blip on the screen of time compared to most other growing municipalities.
“In the ’70s through the’ 90s and even into the 21st century, the city has been on the cutting edge,” said Mazurkiewicz. “We have the largest RO plant and the city was willing to do the dual water system that took the pressure of irrigation off the potable water supply. Because of the city’s shear size we had to address issues earlier than most other cities. Now, people come to Cape Coral to see how we did it, and that means we did things right.
“I think the city is poised to grow and mature into a sustainable community” he added. “We have extra capacity built into our roads and water systems to meet the needs of rapid growth.”
* How it all started
Looking back at the earliest of Cape history, the Rosen Brothers purchased their first property at Redfish Point for $678,000 and they named it Cape Coral. Expansion followed with the creation of more than 400 miles of canals and a massive marketing campaign to sell lots and lots of lots – 350,000 residential building lots. That turns out to have been the worst disservice to this city still struggling today to diversify itself from a predominant bedroom community into an urban center with thriving commercial and industrial contributors.
“The thing that was selling was residential lots, so the Rosens kept platting residential lots,” said Mazurkiewicz. “It’s disappointing to me that we still do not have a center for jobs and disappointing that we don’t even have the parcels of land for one.”
Doing things right
From the late ’50s when Gulf American Corp. was founded to develop the community, the growth that came in the next decade that led to the city incorporating, and the decades since, Cape Coral has blossomed into the largest city in Lee County and third largest in all of Florida.
“(Today) We are one of the safest cities, consistently ranked in the top 10 in a lot of categories, so we’re doing things right,” said Tate.
“The thing about the citizens of Cape Coral is if they saw a need, they formed a committee and made it happen. There’s a lot we still want, like the animal shelter that’s being done, and a college would be beneficial. None of that would have happened as unincorporated Lee County.”