It was a day of ribbons and confetti cannons, hugs and back-slapping as two more island business emerged from Hurricane Ian’s pall.
That makes about a dozen up so far, with at least 500 more to go.
The barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva took a savage beating along with Fort Myers Beach, Pine Island and parts of Lee County near the Caloosahatchee. But like the newly greening sea grapes and strangler figs lining San-Cap Road, a revival is happening.
It’s slow and hard-fought, but that only sweetens each victory, says Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce CEO John Lai, who’s also the new regional director of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.
So far, fewer than a dozen member businesses are open again. Beyond the deli and the bank, they include Captiva’s Island Store, Jerry’s supermarket, Kingfisher Realty on Captiva (with its Sanibel office opening in the coming months) The Shack of Sanibel, the Sanibel Grill, Sanibel Spirits and Traders, while Sanibel’s Island Inn and Captiva’s ‘Tween Waters are welcoming hurricane pass-holders (and in ‘Tween Waters’ case, boaters) to a limited number of rooms.
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What would really help, Lai says, is if the Sanibel Causeway would reopen to off-island traffic for restaurant-goers and holiday shoppers. "It would give them something to shoot for," he said. Yet so far, nothing's been decided, Deputy City Manager Steven Chaipel told The News-Press in an email earlier this week.
"We are having ongoing discussion regarding the elimination of the checkpoint and pass access for the island," he wrote, "but no determinations have been made at this time."
'The resolve of our island'
Bank of the Islands’ President Robbie Roepstorff said the grand re-opening was a true feel-good moment. “Even with offices in Fort Myers, with so many coming back to the island, our residents need their bank.”
She estimates repairs on the gutted shell of their building will take at least a year, “but it’s so good to be back,” she said, even if it is in a trailer flanked by outside toilets.
For his part, deli owner Jeff Weigel welcomed the lunch rush, as a steady stream of friends, regulars, city officials and others popped in to grab Reubens, muffins and smoothies.
Realtor Mary Bondurant, her husband Fred in tow, came with the sole purpose of giving Weigel a congratulatory hug. It took a village to get to that point, he said, including even his Boar’s Head distributor, who helped lug in equipment and supplies.
Days after the storm hit, with the causeway still in pieces, Weigel and son Noah made the 8-hour round trip kayak trip from mainland Bunche Beach to the island to start the process of mucking out, repairing, replacing and reordering.
Weigel’s case is a rare one, Lai says, because he was able to get begin “immediately, before things got really bad inside. He was telling me the story of paddling back in the dark, against the current, (and) that is the resolve of our island. That is the motivation we all need to look to and go, ‘OK, we’re not here until we get tired; we’re here until this job is done.’ “
Beyond the motivational inspiration Weigel provides, he offers a metaphor too, Lai says: traveling against the current in the dark. The six-decade-old chamber finds itself in uncharted waters as well. With so few open for business, he says, “We will not be billing our members (at 500 strong, they comprise about 98% of island businesses) for the next 12 months,” Lai said.
The result? “Our financial position is very difficult (and) our staff has all taken voluntary pay reductions, because they are all very committed to this.” The group is fundraising as well, and selling recovery-themed merchandise, with proceeds going to the hard-hit.
“I feel like our role is undefined right now because our people don’t know what they need yet. They don’t know where to start, a lot of them,” he said.
Small steps, large milestones
If Lai’s past experience holds true, though, soon both islands will be pulling the oars together. “Coming back, I think we all went through every single emotion: We were happy to see people while we were grieving the loss of a place we loved dearly,” he said. “I proposed to my wife here, we got married on-island, our kids were baptized here, my dad’s laid to rest here – every single good memory I have is somehow tied to this place and it’s where I chose to build a career for 35 years.
“Looking around at the business community you helped build to some degree, and watching them hurt, knowing there’s very little you can do to help immediately,” he trails off, shaking his head. “So right now, openings like this are a morale boost we all need. These small steps are large milestones.”
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Plus there’s a secret weapon, Lai said, the overarching Sanibel Plan. Adopted in 1976, the pro-preservation, anti-overgrowth blueprint is the lodestar that’s guided the island’s development, though not unincorporated Lee County’s Captiva. Even so, businesses and environmentalists are largely one and the same on both islands.
“Our businesses understand that what makes our island special is our conservation. Businesses move here knowing full well that 70% of this island is in conservation. They’re not trying to build a McDonald’s, they’re not trying to build a Starbucks,” he said. “It’s the only chamber I know that works as closely with the conservation community (James Evans, CEO and president of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation was at both events that day) and the residential community in lockstep – not battling them – to protect what’s best for our island, which doesn’t mean just our businesses.”
The plan is why “visitation is always so strong on our islands (some 3.4 million in 2020, according to the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau) because it doesn’t feel like anywhere else … because of what our forefathers sought to protect, and we’re going to protect that,” Lai said.
“So we’ll build back with the Sanibel Plan intact … with the best of the past, but if we’re smart, we’ll build back with the things to make us more sustainable and resilient in the future.”
This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: After Hurricane Ian: Sanibel, Captiva businesses slowly reopen