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Cape Coral City Council discusses parks plan, additional PR help

By Staff | May 6, 2016

When the consultants for the Cape Coral parks master plan did their research, they discovered a lot of fascinating things, such as the need for a beach in a city that has no true beachfront.

That is what Barth & Associates told the Cape Coral City Council during its monthly workshop meeting Wednesday at the Nicholas Parkway Annex.

In the interim report, David Barth told the council that high priority needs in the city include a beach; small neighborhood, large community and nature parks; and indoor fitness/cardiovascular equipment.

While the latter of the priorities may seem odd with all the private fitness centers in the city, among those off the high priority list were trails, which just missed the cut, a statistic the consultants said they had never seen before.

The report also showed that among the most-needed programs are more special events, adult fitness and wellness programs, and programs for people over 50, something resembling SHARE Club.

Currently, Barth said, the city is deficient in providing enough land and programs for its escalating growth, a problem that could become even more serious as the city approaches buildout, with a population of around 400,000.

The study finds that city’s current acreage of 829 acres (almost three-fourths of which is specialized space) is about 614 acres short of its target. At buildout, the city is expected to be short by 2,570 acres if it adds no more land to its parks program. The city targets 3,400 acres.

For indoor recreation, the city has 88,302 square feet in rec center space, about 166,000 square feet short of its 2104 target of 254,781 square feet.

All these numbers, Barth said, lag far behind national and state standards. Further, at a time when many cities provide some kind of public space within a mile from home, Cape Coral has little, though most people live within three miles of a park, except for those in the northernmost part of the city.

Still, more than 41 percent of people answering an online survey rated Cape Coral parks either good or excellent, and 84 percent said it’s very important for the city to provide high-quality facilities.

During discussion, Councilmember Jim Burch said finding a use for the old, closed golf course property is the most important aspect to any parks plan, especially if it involves multi-purpose.

“We have wants and needs we have to tailor to this community, but the golf course is the most important element,” Burch said. “We have to be careful when we prioritize a beach.”

“How can we say we’re a waterfront city when we don’t have a beach?” Councilmember Richard Leon said. “We can put a beach on the lake. I’m excited about this. It’s a great opportunity. The question is, how we pay for it?”

Councilmember Rana Erbrick said Crystal Lake is a great option for a beach, adding that the city can add things such as a small cafe while they examine opportunities.

In other business, the city discussed giving Public Information Officer Connie Barron a little help by either hiring a public relations firm or one or two assistants.

“Connie can do anything, but not everything. When she’s working on the Seven Islands, she can’t work on other things,” City Manager John Szerlag said. “We want more communication, but we don’t have the numbers.”

Barron has been a one-woman show at a time when cities of similar size are employing multiple PIOs, officials said in an April 29 memo to council.

Staff recommended “piggybacking” for outside help with the Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization, which contracts with four firms for such services.

“While the budget for these services will be dependent on the level of utilization, we could expect to spend up to $100,000 annually on public information/public involvement activities,” the memo states.

Szerlag first asked council to consider retaining outside assistance in March, citing the need due to a multitude of pending projects including the Northwest Cape Seven Islands project, Bimini Basin, Bike-Pedestrian Master Plan, Academic Village, Community Visioning Plan, Land Use Development Regulations and the LCEC franchise issue.

The city’s other PIO staffers, one each for police and fire, also have full workloads, officials said.

Leon suggested that the city council works as a public information arm and said that there are people who put things on Facebook about Cape Coral all the time. He said supervisors of each department can work as PIOs, delivering news to the city as needed.

Councilmember Rick Williams disagreed, saying there has been a need to improve city communications for years.

“We’re behind the eight ball. The problem is we don’t inform the public. The media has more control than we do,” Williams said. “We don’t know what these people will say. It has to be written and edited by one person.”

Barron added that most department heads already wear too many hats to add PIO to the mix.

Lee County has one position designated as a public information specialist at approximately $60,000 per year.

The county, which also has a communications director, does not contract public information services but does have some marketing services contracts for, for example, economic development, its visitor and tourism board and sports development, officials there said.

City staff was instructed to come back with a plan for council consideration for next fiscal year.