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Businessman shows it’s never too late to step up

By Staff | Jun 11, 2014

A few years back when the deeper waters and the shorelines of the Gulf of Mexico turned permanently cloudy, Mark Anderson stepped outside of the comfort zone he had known from childhood.

A successful general contractor and the son of a mining executive, Anderson in recent years has morphed into a leading activist to reduce pollutants in the Gulf of Mexico and congruently restore the Everglades basin. He still isn’t all that easy in his new role — inherently shy with a contagious boyish chuckle — though he understands that stepping up is his duty as a civic leader, a father, a man aware of his generation’s impact on the planet’s health. A component of Anderson’s new awareness is an addition in his business that focuses on refurbishing commercial buildings, reducing the carbon footprint, he said.

Anderson’s move into advocacy has him deeply involved in committees and groups working to alert Tallahassee and Washington to southwest Florida water issues, moderating workshops, lending his time and considerable influence to force compliance with laws governing water usage. He recently chaired a San-Cap Chamber of Commerce event charged with finding a business solution to the Gulf water issue, perhaps coalesce southwest chambers of commerce into a voice to balance the powers of Big Sugar interests that control Everglades water usage.

He’s even swapped a gas-guzzling SUV for an electric blue Nissan Leaf.

“It was not of my essence” to make change, said Anderson, who is 62 and president of Benchmark, a general contracting firm with a hand in many commercial developments in Sanibel and Captiva. The former Sanibel firm is now in Fort Myers. “But my daughter was an environmental studies major in Boulder. She sat in redwood trees, helped me understand the impact that we have on our planet. I bought into it. I knew what was happening to the Gulf was not right, that I needed to help the next generation.”

For Anderson, the transition to civic-minded developer started with childhood visits to southwest Florida. His father was a successful mining executive in Ohio bringing his family to vacation at Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel. Some fifty years later, Anderson recalls Periwinkle Way as a dirt road with deep potholes. He smiles in remembering his father asking that he check the depth of the potholes because he was the only family member wearing flip-flops.

But what locked into Mark Anderson’s memory banks were beach visits. He recalls looking to the bottom of Gulf waters, his eyes easily penetrating to the sand, marine life flittering about. Those memories disappeared as Florida’s population soared. Lawn chemicals, agriculture, livestock farming, changes favoring agribusiness in central Florida, each have contributed to the amount of pollutants beavering west along the Caloosahatchee.

The real eye-opener has been summers in the last decade, when billions of gallons of upstream waters are released from Lake Okeechobee, creating a nightmarish bloom of greenish algae in the Gulf that choked off sunlight and nutrients, killing sea grasses and the sea life dependent on the natural food chain. Some 500 billion gallons were released last summer, blanketing beaches over four months with what amounts to pond scum.

The sudden upstream flush last summer devastated San-Cap businesses, creating a mess of the beaches, the marinas and the fishing, each worth millions in investment and tourist dollars. Resort owners, visitors and homeowners starting in May were greeted with windrows of dead sea grasses, poor water quality, metallic smells and other side effects that caused some tourists to swear off the region for vacationing, some resort officials reported. Gulf waters were affected through October.

“There is no silver bullet,” Sanibel’s Natural Resources director, James Evans, told the chamber group that Anderson in late May chaired. “We need multiple projects, east, south and west. The bottom-line is a cohesive game plan.”

Anderson’s Nissan Leaf isn’t the only obvious shift in values. His business, too, uses renewable energy in his company’s offices on McGregor Boulevard. He takes obvious pleasure in showing the water exchange device that uses rainwater to sustain the building. The excess rain is used to water a substantial garden on the grounds.

His business model, too, is involved in refurbishing and re-outfitting older structures. It’s smart business, sure, but also fits into his worldview of lessening a business footprint as modern Florida continues to swell in population.

“Thank, God, that Mark understands the role the business community plays” in Gulf water issues, said Ray Judah, former Lee County commissioner and president of the Florida Coastal and Ocean Coalition, an advocacy group. “He’s also a genuine soul, very upbeat. His central focus is our region’s well-being. And for that, we can all be thankful.”