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an interview with
Mayor Randy Henderson
by CINDY-JO DIETZ
MY, HOW TIMES ARE CHANGING. I remember in the late 90s attempting to find something to do on a Saturday night downtown seemed more like work than the weekend. To visit the area much after dark meant taking my chances crossing dark side streets filled with questionable characters, some funny and some not quite. During the day it wasnt much better. Downtown area businesses appeared weathered and out of date. In fact, the streetscapes could easily give one the distinct impression the city was suffering a sharp decline one hurricane, or economic turndown away from disappearing into oblivion. But all that has changed.
Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson has made it his personal mission to continue the efforts of his predecessor, former Mayor Humphrey, in cleaning up, renovating, and shaping the new look and feel of what downtown offers its residents and visitors.
We knew we had to modernize the city, make it a pleasant place to be, make it a safe place to be. Weve had issues in the past, but weve gotten rid of that by transitioning away from a predominantly drinking district, if you will. We had an extensive debate on what to do when the city was dealing with ways to instill stability and comfort from criminal activity. We created a law. If youre only a drinking establishment, thats what you exist for, its going to be unlawful for anyone under 21 to be in your establishment. I would tell you that I had to take great consternation supporting the law in the beginning, because Im a person whos for more freedom, not more restriction, but at the end of analysis and debate it was more logical than it was about freedom. It aligned our citys interest with the interest of what federal and state government laws were. We were criticized by some, but most supported the law including a lot of bars and restaurants. They didnt want the liability associated with underage drinking, and I want to tell you, looking back, it has been a great decision for the city.
Altering the drinking laws in downtown was just the beginning. Mayor Henderson explains, We wanted to create a general good feeling that said to the business world I want to be there, set up my shop there, because I can make a great living if I do.
By 2002-2003, Fort Myers began interviewing world renowned urban planner Andres Duany. Duanys plan ultimately provided the city with a vision intended to inspire the arrival of new business by supporting and propping up existing business. Rather than Duany presenting us a plan saying, Do this and only this over the next ten years and if you change it youre screwing it up, it was instead, Heres an outline, heres a template. Now just mold it and tweak it in these various ways. Andres Duany provided the flexibility within his plan, but what he didnt say was thats not going to be easy.
The existing community understood giving downtown a face-lift was going to be painful and time consuming, but many approached it from the perspective that before things could get better the city had to go through it. As the old saying goes, no pain no gain On the other hand, there was the typical grinding and gnashing of teeth from some.
It was necessary to rip up many of the streets, the Mayor explains. Everything was planked off down there. Youd have to walk around construction in order to get to your favorite restaurant. It is some of the most difficult work you will ever seek to do when imagining the publics interest. There are so many ways people think it should be done so first you try to seek a consensus. We did that by having so many public hearings. I believe we have collectively gotten the vision way more right than wrong. The efforts were well worth it. Downtown is thriving, businesses are moving in at an astonishing rate along with new residents, and our arts and entertainment community has truly begun to flourish as a result.
He continues, Another part of our vision included creating opportunity for entertainment that appealed to a broad range of people. We wanted people to be able to have a nice dinner, walk around, experience the culture, art, a play, and more.
Id like to see a cinema and bandshell eventually built. It is one of the goals over the next term to reach out to wealthier people from the community and try to inspire the financial resources so we can have a symphony presence downtown. We are ready for it. Weve got a venue down on the river where one day I envision symphony performances throughout the year and jazz festivals. I think it would show the real sophistication of the city.
Ginny (my wife) and I have intense schedules. We cant do all the things we want, but currently we love attending the Sydney & Berne Davis Arts Center events. If nothing else, I like to show up as Mayor to be supportive of the efforts that are going on, he says. I do everything in my power to try to do that as often as possible. The art, music and theatre events drive a lot of the interest in our community and influence the economy in very positive ways. I remember my predecessor, Mayor Humphrey, once went to a US Mayors convention and I remember him coming back and reporting to the council, Weve got to get this city heading in a direction that provides an opportunity to grow its arts and cultural community. We began to do that and its made a great impact. Tourism is strong. The Edison-Ford Estates is doing better than its ever done. The Southwest Florida Historical Museum, the Imaginarium Science Center, the Burrows Home, and Langford Kingston House, are all showing record attendances and usage.
So what else does Mayor Henderson predict for the future? I believe we will see multiple modern hotels and restaurants coming to take advantage of the building blocks we have created for them, he says. Beyond that, other businesses and financial services will show up because there will be more demand for those services.
A lot of residential area will continue to grow here and inland from the river, stimulating more opportunity for younger folks to buy in at affordable rates with nice accommodations. Right now not everybody can afford to be right on the river. I believe all that will be possible in the coming 36 months to ten year horizon.
The Mayor continues, Another one of the challenges in balancing the diverse interests of our citizens included a substantial public debate about appropriate heights of new buildings. Merging the high buildings in with the historical low buildings was really challenging. I think we found a reasonable balance, but it was stressful trying to figure that out. Somewhere you have to find the threshold that offers a feasible opportunity, but yet maintains the charm and character of the city. So we dont have a perfect plan, but I think weve got it way more right than weve got it wrong. And Im comfortable with that.
Considering his experiences in governmment the Mayor recalls, I was guarded when I first came into office 12 years ago (as city councilman). I wanted to participate in a process that inspired a plan, but wouldnt set the plan on a shelf and say we better wait. Thankfully, to my colleagues credit, we planned the work and we began immediately to work the plan. Working together in a transparent, respectful way, inspiring and achieving a result which changes a city forever for the better it gives you a feeling of accomplishment. I tell people all the time, the best is yet to come.
Since the last census, Fort Myers population shrank from 67,000 to 63,000 post recession. It seemed that there was an exodus from the city, but today at nearly 68,000, Fort Myers continues to prove it will weather this storm and others to come. The economy is recovering, our population growing and there is a good amount of choice when it comes to what to do on a Saturday night in the city.
The word is getting out across Florida and beyond that Fort Myers is a beautiful city and a fun place to be, says Mayor Henderson. If you havent visited downtown in a while, perhaps you should.
to be able to
have a nice dinner,
experience the culture,
art, a play, and more.
down on the river
where one day
I envision symphony performances
throughout the year
and jazz festivals.
I think it would show
the real sophistication
of the city.