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City, business leaders attend sustainability summit

By Staff | May 1, 2015

Charles Ballaro Cape Coral Mayor Marni Sawicki listens to one of the speakers.

There are three pillars of sustainability; people, places and the economy, and all three need to be in balance for cities to continue to grow and thrive.

That was the message most people got during Thursday’s inaugural Southwest Florida Sustainability Summit at the Harborside Convention Center, which brought out many community and business leaders, including all six Lee County mayors, including Cape Coral’s Marni Sawicki.

The event featured panel discussions, Q&A sessions and workshops to help guests learn about what makes the area’s schools, businesses and environment “sustainable” and how to keep them as such.

Matt Visaggio, one of the main sponsors of the event, said the idea of the event was to talk about how to make wise decisions for our community.

“We focused on people, the local environment and the economy, and how we funnel everything toward prosperity and improve quality of life,” Visaggio said. “We want to do something that improves quality of life. If it doesn’t make business sense, it won’t make any sense.”

The panel discussions looked into the vision of sustainability and where communities wanted to go, the smart way to grow and how communities can work together.

The discussion on vision quickly took a turn toward the environment.

Rae Ann Wessel, of the Sanibel/Captiva Conservation Foundation, said sustainability is a “balancing act,” making sure we continue growth, but not at the expense of environmental change.

County Commissioner Larry Kiker said sustainability gives Lee County a competitive edge.

“Companies that want to come here look at the infrastructure, environment and schools. They even look at how people at the convenience stores respond when you ask for directions,” Kiker said. “Sustainability encompasses everything.”

While those in the panel discussion would like to see ideas such as better mass transit and mixed-use zoning implemented, there was disagreement on whether it could be implemented.

“That ship has sailed in too many places. It would be great if nobody drives, but people won’t get out of their cars,” Kiker said. “That’s just how it goes.”

“Millennials will. They are socially sensitive to the environment,” countered Christine Ross, president and CEO of the Bonita Springs Chamber of Commerce.

The environmental concept was of great interest to Danielle Flood, media relations director at ECHO in North Fort Myers.

“ECHO seeks to work with the community to partner and bring much of what we do internationally to a leadership role here,” Flood said.

Sawicki said the summit was great way for community leaders to come together and discuss how to be sustainable, and saw the Bimini Basin project as an example.

“We’re looking at how we can incorporate electric vehicles and bicycles to cut down on vehicle emissions,” Sawicki said. “We’re looking at sustainability with electricity. We’ve reduced electric use 38 percent. Incorporating green technology in our projects will be the best way to go. Millennials want this and my children want this.”

Also featured was a workshop put on by Gulf Elementary School – in the format of “Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader” regarding the three pillars of sustainability with principal Kim Verblaauw, whose school is a nationally recognized “green school” that conserves energy in a myriad of ways.

“The mindset of sustainability needs to start at a young age, so the recycling and responsible use of our beaches and resources are all themes we can carry into the classroom,” said Amity Chandler, communications director for Lee County Public Schools. “Our energy conservation initiatives have saved the system millions of dollars.”

The event also featured numerous vendors and a gallery featuring sustainable artwork from local artists, for which awards were given.

Proceeds from ticket sales, vendor registrations and sponsorships were donated to the Imaginarium Science Center in Fort Myers.