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Early residents have experienced the good times — and the bad

By Staff | Aug 26, 2010

Cape Coral may have started with only a handful of people, but through the years the community has seen growth and prosperity and a hard economic downturn.

The pendulum has swung to the extremes.

Lean times in recent years have lead to budget cuts when the construction boom came to a halt. People lost homes, businesses. Some longstanding businesses have had to cope with down-sizing while providing quality and great customer service.

During the boom times the Cape, as it’s called, saw tremendous growth, business expansion, people moving to the sleepy little town.

Gloria Raso Tate and Bennett Agranove have experienced the good – and bad – times. But they know their town will persevere and recover.

Tate came to the Cape in 1960; Agranove adopted it as his home in 1983. But the two share a love affair with the city.

Tate came to Florida was with her father, mom who was pregnant with her fifth child and her grandfather.

“We experience Hurricane Donna as we drove to Tampa and they told us not to go any further,” she said. “My mother was so angry at my dad. She said we were going and it would be his fault if something happened.”

That something did happen. The Rasos arrived in the area as Donna’s eye passed over the hotel.

“Our first night was in broken glass, small apartments and no roof,” she laments. “Mosquitoes were everywhere.”

In the little town that grew, Tate remembers two-hour rides to school because there were no bridges; they had time for math, reading and lunch before reboarding the bus for the two-hour-long return ride. The children of Cape Coral were scattered because some went to Fort Myers and other North Fort Myers high schools.

“Yet we had out Teen Club to have our Friday night dances,” she remembers. “When you turned 13, you got a key to the building.”

But Tate couldn’t wait to turn 13.

“I wanted to go to the Christmas dance,” she said. So, she petitioned to get to go.

Sundays turned into an all-day affair. The family went to church in downtown Fort Myers and would wear swimsuits under their Sunday best and then go to the beach. She remembers the movie theater on Cleveland Avenue where Edison Mall stands today.

Her father became a salesman for Gulf American Corp. He was a closer, working with the salesman on the fly-and-buy programs.

There were “microphones in all the (sales) rooms,” she said. “If there was a problem with the sales closing, he would just walk in and somehow close the deals.”

“My sister and I signed on to work with the company over the summers,” she said. “We were babysitters for the company as the fly-and-buys did allow family to bring the children with them. We showed the beaches and so much more and they were just as excited to buy a piece of paradise.

“That began our love affair with Cape Coral,” she said.

“My father was a company man, and yet built the first home that was not a Gulf American company home. He almost got fired for that.”

“Much like the spirit of the people in Cape Coral, Gulf American Land Corporation provided all we needed and it was always free for everyone,” she said. “We were a big family, enjoying paradise known as ‘The Waterfront Wonderland.'”

Tate left for college in 1969 and returned in 1977.

But she does remember the prominent people who helped with the city’s growth: Jack and Leonard Rosen, Connie Mack Senior, Milt Green, Kenny Schwartz, Howie Freidman, Paul Stafille, Paul Sanborn, Elmer Tabor, Wayne Kirkwood, Bob Finkernagel and Mary Harborn.

“These were among many of the first employees of the company that built the family of people that built Cape Coral,” she said.

“When I returned to the Cape, it was still a very small family and I still knew most of the families,” she continued. “I worked at June’s Hallmark where everyone came to shop for every occasion. Again, it gave me the opportunity to share in many people’s lives.”

She also remembers the issues affecting the Cape, much the same as they are today.

“As long as I can remember, the issues have been the same – utilities, roads, and jobs. It seemed that whenever there was a need, the citizens took care of it.

“We were philanthropic before it was fashionable and we never thought of those who helped to be wealthy,” she said. “We just all worked together and that spirit of giving is where you find people like Elmer Tabor, Boots Tolles – she was the first woman in construction – Joe Mazurkiewicz, Wayne Kirkwood and so many others.”

But Gulf American went by the wayside and Tate’s parents formed Raso Realty, which is still in existence.

“Gulf American Company salesmen were let go, my dad was the last to go and that is when many opened their own real estate offices. Raso Realty and Mary Harborn Realty were side by side on Cape Coral Street. I got my real estate license in 1978 and got really involved in 1988,” she said.

Water and sewer expansion was the catalyst of much political awareness and brought about the biggest political upheaval Tate can remember.

“The fact that they tore up 14 square miles of roads, land sales died and the city was torn up for years,” she said. “We could not sell anything and for the most part could not understand how the value was going to be a benefit.

“Many lots were returned to the city. There were times when they were our biggest competitors for land sales and we in the real estate business were at odds with City Hall,” she said. “We also were very upset with the process and the progress – it would take up to a year for an area to be navigable during construction. These were trying times. I started going to a few council meetings as I was involved with the Association of Realtors.”

She was at a luncheon listening to the mayor speak about younger people getting involved in politics.

“I got excited about the idea,” she said. “I talked to my mom and dad and they thought is sounded like a good idea. I was never sure about the outcome, but I was sure about the town I had grown up in and the city I love and believe it to be MY city.

“I take ownership of where I live, took pride in my community, volunteered to make a difference where ever I could and put my name on the ballot.”

She was elected and tackled issues such as utilities and hiring a city manager.

But back in the day, the Cape “was a boom town just like 2005, people were coming from everywhere. (They) did not care what or where the land was as long as it had waterfront and they could see it. We were selling land to people from everywhere – Canadians were one of our most popular markets. We made friends and family with everyone we sold.”

Ironically Agranove is Canadian.

In 1983, he bought Carriage Classic Cleaners from the original owners, Herschel and Marin Biggs. The cleaners was the only game in town in 1961, Agranove said.

“He was on Cape Coral Parkway and built this building in 1965,” he said. The store is located at 4723 Del Prado South.

“Basically, they did a lot of work for Gulf American,” Agranove said. “It was their best customer and the business thrived.”

After years of running the business, the Biggs decided it was time to move on and they moved to Tennessee and opened a business there.

“The dry cleaning business is a pretty difficult business, ” Agranove said, explaining the heat and long hours worked by the Biggs.

“We took over and in 1989 we did a big expansion and changed the design of the front of the building,” he said. The adjacent Chinese restaurant’s lease was over – the Biggs owned that portion of the building – and Agranove expanded.

Up until the economic bust in 2007, Agranove said his business boomed.

“It’s still bad,” he said. “But we, believe it or not, we still have customers we had when we started off in 1983 so we must be doing something right.”

He declined to name customers for their privacy.

But he remains positive because there are improvements in the dry cleaning industry such as what types of solvents, detergents and spotting agents used.

When he first moved from Canada to Lee County, he lived in a condo until finding the perfect house in Cape Coral.

“It was really fun for me to get to know so many new people because we had a large influx of new people coming in to Cape Coral.”

And even though times are tough, he sees the Cape rebounding.

One aspect of his business: his customers are friends and his employees have to be reminded at times they are to work. At times they are like bartenders – listening to customer’s personnel tales.

Ann and Dennis Duffala also see a light at the end of the tunnel. Dennis Duffala was not in the Cape in the years leading up to incorporation in 1970. He was serving in the Marine Corp. He enlisted in 1965, went active in early 1966 and two years later went to Vietnam as a machine gun squad leader.

He stepped on a landmine, causing him to lose both legs.

But Duffala has not let that stop him. After spending seven months in hospitals, he and Ann married a month later and four days before his discharge. He was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

Duffala may not have had legs to walk with – he tried artificial ones for three years – but he didn’t let that stop him from becoming involved with the town he loved. For a few years, he spent time in St. Petersburg/Largo and Tallahassee, getting his college degrees.

By the time he returned home, Cape Coral had incorporated.

Walking through the city, going to stores and businesses proved anything but easy for the double-amputee. The Americans With Disability Act was a few years from inception and people didn’t think about the pitfalls facing those who may not have legs, eye sight or other disabilities.

But Duffala didn’t let that slow him down. He does say Cape Coral has greatly improved in handicap accessibility during the years, except for aisles at stores. It’s difficult, at best, sometimes to get a wheelchair through them. And opening doors because of the suction that builds up because of air conditioners and things, sometimes prove difficult.

“I think (Cape Coral) is considerably 100 percent in compliance with ADA,” he said. “Of course with ADA, there were places not covered, they were grandfathered in and didn’t have to comply. Some old places still have problems.

“I’m very biased,” he said. “If I can roll over something, it’s O.K.” He acknowledges though that people with other handicaps may not feel the same way.

Ironically, some of the places his father, Clarence “Butch” Duffala, built could cause him problems nowadays.

Dennis Duffala recalls coming to Cape Coral. In 1957, his father, a custom home builder in Ohio, saw it as a business opportunity. “He saw a big future in it and thought it would grow.” So his father moved to the Cape and the family followed in 1958 when school was out.

Butch Duffala was a private builder for the first several years, but Gulf American Corp., “kept wanting him to come on board as a company man.” Years later, he finally got involved with GAC, spent a few years, then went back into private contracting.

“He did grow with the community,” Duffala says of his father. He developed several model homes, realizing early on that people weren’t interested at first in custom homes in a new community.

Later on, Butch Duffala was heavily involved in commercial and industrial building as well.

“We did a lot of firsts in Cape Coral,” Dennis Duffala said, recalling the first gasoline station, Vic’s Pure Oil on the Southeast corner of Cape Coral Parkway and Del Prado; Elmer Super Market (now Town Center); Roberts Pharmacy on Del Prado and where the bridge is now; Cape Coral Bank, (his and Ann’s fathers were two of the original founding board members); Cape Coral Togs (originally made female clothing apparel and later expanded); and many of the first churches such as the Presbyterian Church on Coronado in which he and Ann were married.

Many of the buildings Duffala Construction Co. built have since expanded or had additions put on.

The Duffalas, Tate and Agranove have seen the Cape’s growth – from a different perspective.

Dennis Duffala saw it through the eyes of a law enforcement officer.

In October 1976 he had recently received his master’s degree in urban and regional planning with a specialty in crime prevention through environmental design.

His sister was a detective with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office and introduced him to then-Sheriff Frank Wanika .

“He wanted to start a crime prevention function within the department and my credentials were what he was looking for. He offered me a job and I wasn’t even looking,” Duffala said.

He would never earn as much as he could have in the private sector, but because of his education, Duffala was given an additional yearly stipend.

“I served as crime prevention officer and it put me in touch with the entire community, giving information on how to do home, business and neighborhood crime prevention,” he said. That lead to speaking engagements with the many civic associations and entities throughout Lee County – including the budding Cape Coral.

Ann Duffala says her impression of the city’s growth is that the “GAC founders were dreamers who believed that they would succeed and convinced those who worked with them to share their excitement and enthusiasm. Obviously, those who bought into the vision had to have a sense of adventure and be able to think creatively.

“Although there are certainly many questions in the history of Cape Coral regarding the tactics often used to sell and/or manage the property, or whether it could happen again given environmental concerns, etc., the fact that Cape Coral has become the second largest geographical city in Florida speaks to the fact that there were and have been many others who also saw this community as a vibrant one to which they wanted to belong,” she said.

“The fact that Cape Coral incorporated in 1970 in my opinion is the result of natural consequences of the original goals of the founders … to be a fully operating sustainable community,” Ann Duffala said. “The fact that it happened in less than 15 years is nothing but remarkable.”