It’s a Nat­u­ral

Lovers Key to get in­no­va­tive wel­come and dis­cov­ery cen­ter

Bonita & Estero Magazine - - DEPARTMENTS - From top: Lovers Key State Park com­prises 1,600 acres. A ren­der­ing of the new cen­ter shows its main en­trance. The build­ing’s stilts, or pil­ings, are de­signed to mimic sur­round­ing man­groves.

T here’s a lot to love at Lovers Key State Park. That’s why more than a mil­lion peo­ple go ev­ery year to fish, pad­dle, hike, bird­watch and just re­lax on 1,600 acres be­tween Fort My­ers Beach and Bonita Beach. A big new ad­di­tion to Lovers Key will en­hance those vis­its by show­cas­ing the park’s ecosys­tems, en­abling all ages to learn more and help pro­tect this slice of par­adise. What started as a dream eight years ago—to have a visi­tors’ cen­ter—is about to be­come re­al­ity as a dy­namic “wel­come and dis­cov­ery cen­ter,” set to open in 2019.

“It’s an ex­cit­ing time,’’ says Rich Don­nelly, pres­i­dent of Friends of Lovers Key (FOLKS), the sup­port­ive fundrais­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion work­ing to col­lect $1.3 mil­lion for the cen­ter. Those funds will com­ple­ment the hard-fought $4 mil­lion con­struc­tion bud­get from the state. “It’s a new game for Lovers Key once this build­ing goes up,’’ Don­nelly notes.

For the first time, Lovers Key—sec­ond-busiest of Florida’s 174 state parks—by next sum­mer will have ded­i­cated in­door space with seat­ing for 75 peo­ple. To­tal ca­pac­ity will be 200 with con­nect­ing out­door porches. Ranger talks, ex­hibits, civic and club meet­ings, and school field trips are en­vi­sioned, and maybe much more, depend­ing on the park sys­tem and FOLKS pol­i­cy­mak­ing. The cen­ter will of­fer 4,000 square feet un­der air. “It’s re­ally go­ing to be a neat build­ing—not your typ­i­cal state park visi­tors’ cen­ter de­signed in the 1950s. Our dis­plays will be mor e mod­ern than stuffed rat­tlesnakes,” ex­plains Don­nelly. “Our de­sign is in­tended to re­flect the park and the sur­round­ing Bonita-Es­tero-Fort My­ers Beach area, which will be us­ing it.’’ For ex­am­ple, pil­ings sup­port­ing the main floor are de­signed to look like man­grove roots. “Visi­tors will re­mem­ber and talk about it,’’ adds Don­nelly. He speaks with spe­cial in­sight. Don­nelly is a semi-re­tired ar­chi­tect who vol­un­teered ini­tial rough sketches upon learn­ing of the idea eight years ago. At that time he was work­ing as a tram driver and of­fered his de­sign ser­vices to FOLKS, to jump start the visionary con­ver­sa­tion. That evolved to a fo­cus on ed­u­ca­tion. Per­ma­nent high­lights of the cen­ter will be ex­hibits ex­plain­ing dis­tinct com­po­nents of Lovers Key, in­clud­ing beaches and dunes; the abun­dant man­a­tees, al­li­ga­tors, tur­tles, birds and fish; and man­groves and other trees and plants. A cen­trally lo­cated statue of a mana­tee is sure to be­come an ir­re­sistible selfie back­drop, Don­nelly pre­dicts.

Per­ma­nent high­lights of the cen­ter will be ex­hibits ex­plain­ing dis­tinct com­po­nents of Lovers Key.

Al­though not yet part of the plans, a his­tory ex­hibit on Lovers Key would at­tract at­ten­tion. It was ded­i­cated as a state park in 1983 and joined in 1996 with the then-ex­ist­ing Carl E. Johnson Park, a Lee County fa­cil­ity. Dog Beach re­mains a county park to the south.

The Johnson/Lovers Key en­deavor stands as a tes­ti­mo­nial to what pub­lic agen­cies with fore­sight can achieve for the pub­lic in­ter­est. Early plan­ning doc­u­ments show the driv­ing force was as sim­ple as pro­tect­ing the land from the per­ils of de­vel­op­ment and to as­sure wa­ter­front and beach ac­cess for a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion.

Lovers Key it­self was ear­marked for more than 4,000 res­i­den­tial units be­fore the state stepped in. As former Bonita Springs His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety pres­i­dent Char­lie Strader puts it, “We are so lucky to have it as a pub­lic park as op­posed to pri­vate con­dos as planned when it was dredged.”

Robert Steiger, park man­ager un­til re­tir­ing this past May, of­fers a well-rounded take on the role of ed­u­ca­tion at the wel­come and dis­cov­ery cen­ter. He ex­plains that visi­tors “will learn why it is im­por­tant to pro­tect and pre­serve these ar­eas for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. It will be a gr eat ed­u­ca­tional cen­ter for stu­dents of all ages. My hope is that it will pr omote stew­ard­ship while en­cour­ag­ing visi­tors to recre­ate in a non-con­sump­tive man­ner.’’

The FOLKS fundrais­ing ef­fort for the cen­ter is known as The Dis­cov­ery Cam­paign, and is headed up by Kae Moore. “We want to in­spire our visi­tors to this unique state park to come in­side our new build­ing and learn about the past, present and fu­ture of this part of South­west Florida,” he says. “We hope to in­spire our visi­tors to go

out­side and ac­tu­ally ex­pe­ri­ence this knowl­edge first­hand. “The new wel­come and dis­cov­ery cen­ter is for all ages, and gifts are tax-de­ductible,’’ Moore adds, men­tion­ing that he can be reached at 239-898-2492. Nam­ing rights for ev­ery­thing from the cen­ter it­self to the book­store and meet­ing rooms are avail­able.

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