Park controversy may sink water-sports programs
Cape Coral homeowners who have protested the possible inclusion of kayak and rowing clubs at a new park in the city’s northwest may get more than they asked for: One of the two sports organizations says it will disband due to a lack of a place to continue its programs with the second saying it is on borrowed time.
Melinda Mack, who ran the South Florida Canoe/Kayak Club, said Thursday she has no other option but to close the non-profit that trained kids for competition as they have nowhere for the young athletes to train.
The organization lost its lease with the city on Lake Kennedy in September and there now appears to be no replacement site in sight.
“We have been off the water since National Championships, which was the first week in August. We have not had a place to train and our kids have moved on,” Mack said. “The equipment is a personal investment and me and my husband have had to move on.”
Mack said she had one athlete who was ready to go to team trials to make the U.S. National Team and many others who also had promise. National teams from around the globe had even trained here in the winter.
But for Mack, the current controversy regarding space at the future Tropicana Park is all too similar to what she faced when the club moved to Lake Kennedy in 2013. At that time there was a proposal to build a large training complex with dormitories two years later,
Nearby property owners protested.
As vehemently as are members of the Northwest Cape Coral Neighborhood Association, which does not think Tropicana Park is the proper place for the clubs.
“I’m tired. I’ve been through this before, and I can’t understand why we are the only sport to get put in a boxing ring like this,” Mack said. “No other sport, for months on end, has had to defend what we do for the youth of this city to get access to a waterway in a city with 400 miles of canals.”
Mack said she and her husband are getting to the point where they have to sell the equipment, since they can’t wait for something to happen and have assets off the water.
With no sense of finalization to this situation, this also puts the Caloosa Coast Rowing Club in a situation of where it could be the next to go.
While the non-profit club also has a competitive element — especially for the youths, who can get college scholarships for the sport — much of what they do is recreational, especially for older rowers.
Saundra Weston, youth rowing coach, said their home base, in Cape Harbour, has been sold and is about to be developed, which could leave them “homeless” as well.
“We’re on borrowed time right now. We went to the (city) council a year ago to find out what land they might be willing to work with us to get us situated,” Weston said. “Tropicana Park was on the Northwest Spreader and we kept coming to that.”
Weston said things started stirring in December, when some homeowners in the northwest started to show discontent over the prospect of the two clubs operating out of a city park.
Weston concedes part of the problem was a concept proposal submitted by her in the spring. She said in her experience, she has seen rowing clubs partner with cities and states to try to create something fabulous.
“I was going in with a proposal to build something fabulous. I was pushing for a community center that also happened to store boats,” Weston said. “There was a gorgeous one in Tampa that was finished in 2019, and I said we could do something like this if the city wants to get skin in the game.”
Weston drafted a concept proposal that included a community center that had boat racks. When she came forward with it, she got an answer immediately — a too-big-for-the-site response from city staff and a no, not here from the Northwest Cape Coral Neighborhood Association, which has since expressed outrage because a possible partnership or lease arrangement with the clubs was not part of the original plan for the park.
Weston said she understands why the back-and-forth between the club and city staff has drawn protests but stressed she basically submitted a dream proposal and was willing to work with the city on something more modest.
The NWNA says it has no issue with the clubs, only the location.
Club president John Brashaw expressed surprise Thursday that one of the groups said it would close, adding the NWNA had expected to continue discussions.
“They did good things for the city and I was planning to participate in a stakeholders meeting to find a location for them,” he said. “We were moving forward in finding a location. It’s sad they’re closing.”
Concerns expressed by the neighborhood association include perceived safety issues; the possibility the clubs would occupy at least 20 percent of the open space at the park; that the building in the concept plan was metal; and that, as a neighborhood park, the amenities should serve those within a two-mile radius.
The arguments have become contentious, with some critics accusing city staffers of lying to homeowners, not showing any renderings online with space for the rowing clubs, and having its own agenda.
“These parks were supposed to be the pick of the people. Two million dollars were going to be spent and what you want there goes there. That’s what got people to buy into the GO Bond,” NWNA member John Karcher said before the Tropicana Park rally two weeks ago. “Now they’re lying. With 400 miles of canals, there’s nowhere else to put these groups?”
Meanwhile, club supporters have sat quietly during meetings, trying to stay out of the public fray. That has been difficult at times, as they claim they have been “ravaged” in social media.
Heather Mazurkiewicz, whose 13-year-old daughter has become an elite rower in her age group, said participation in the sport has been the best thing that has happened to her, as she has become friends with and competed with some of the best in the world.
“It is something she has enjoyed and she fell in love with the sport the first time she got into a kayak,” said Mazurkiewicz, whose daughter was a member of the South Florida Canoe & Kayak Club.
Mazurkiewicz said the NWNA has not only disregarded the facts, but has personally attacked dissenters.
“Not only are they ignorant of the facts but have personally attacked me, my daughter; it’s not acceptable behavior how they have approached this topic,” Mazurkiewicz said. “They mentioned her by name in social media as a child of privilege and there was no reason to bring her name up.”
“The NWNA doesn’t get to plan the park, that’s up to city staff. They had the opportunity to say something at the meetings, when all the clubs were present,” Mazurkiewicz added. “I’m disappointed the city is giving an organization that has used the tactics they use so much power.”
Bashaw did he was unaware of any intimidation and said he doesn’t condone any such actions.
Mazurkiewicz also echoed Mack’s sentiment that no other sport has had to go through what the clubs have had to go through for what could have been a city parks and rec program. Pop Warner and Little League have agreements with the city to use parks, which feature ball fields and concessions, she pointed out.
Other options, such as moving to another location, seems out of the question, Weston said, adding it’s about survival.
“If we can’t get in that park, we will probably cease to exist. I can’t go to some of the locations being pitched because parents won’t drop their kids off in a remote lot in the middle of nowhere,” Weston said. “A park is well lit and seen as safe.”
“The bottom line is that they really don’t want us in the water. We have ‘S’ curves and more traffic and seasonal boaters in the southwest. Safety is not a concern,” Weston said. “I hear them say that, but they really just don’t want us near the spreader.”
The city council has said it would approve having a facility for the clubs at Tropicana.
Councilmember Rick Williams said he is getting very frustrated with what he calls the misinformation out there.
“It’s driving me crazy. It’s not a huge facility. It’s a small storage area and it’s not a metal building because they’re not allowed. They’re coming up with thing after thing that makes no sense,” Williams said. “It would be nice to have a facility with training and classrooms, but right now we need to place to put the boats.”
“I have gotten tons of e-mails in support of the rowing clubs. It’s something we need to look at to see where they will go,” Mayor Joe Coviello said. “I think it’s the old adage ‘Not in my backyard.'”