On Thursday, April 14, the south end of Mamie Street in Chokoloskee was bulldozed and a chain-linked fence was installed around the property leading to the Smallwood Museum. Gregg Griffin, general contractor for the owner FL-GA Grove LLP, stated that he had received all the permits needed to develop a marina which will include building a dock, a launch-assisted boat ramp, and a seawall.
On Friday, April 15, the old Blue Heron motel was also demolished along with the only road leading to the Smallwood’s. When asked if they had notified the Museum or residents living along Mamie Street of this action, Mr. Griffin said “no” and that if they had given them advance notice, then they would have been stopped by an injunction. He said that their decision to act at this time was based on the Army Corps of Engineers’ intent to deny use of the Calusa Drive as an access road to Smallwood’s. Calusa Drive is a private road to residential homes with a walking pathway through the wetlands leading to what is left of Mamie Street.
According to Mr. Griffin, the Army Corps said that as long as there was an alternate road to Smallwood’s (Mamie Street), then there was no need for Calusa to be the access road. So, FL-GA Grove decided to remove the “alternate”road. Their belief is that the Army Corps will now have to approve of a permit for widening and paving the private Calusa Drive. To do so they will need to remove the very old Gumbo Limbo trees which line the north side of this dirt drive. Commissioner Jim Coletta was asked if the county was interested in purchasing the marina; he said that years ago the county had looked at this property site but that there were too many issues involved and the county instead decided to dedicate their funds to purchasing the Port of the Islands marina. When the general contractor was asked if the marina would be of use to the public, he stated “no”, that it was strictly for the private use of FL-GA Grove owners. He stated they have no plans at this time for further development.
Besides ignoring all the historic and archaeological significance of Chokoloskee and the 105-year old Smallwood Store that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, FL-GA Grove LLP has essentially “closed down” this not-for-profit store which derives all of its revenue from entrance fees and gift shop sales. Four employees on this small island are out of their jobs, and the hundreds of tourists who visit this Museum every week are denied access. Director of the Museum Lynn McMillin(grand-daughter of Ted Smallwood) said that she was in total shock and that this came without any warning. She hopes that she can work out an agreement with the adjacent property owners in order to avoid going to court. She said that this is financially devastating to the Museum. There are also several individual property owners whose driveways were on Mamie Street. All but one belongs to Parkway Motel & Marina where they do have access. The one individual property owner who lost his only access when the street was bulldozed has been granted temporary use of Parkway’s property to get to his home.
The private property owners on the other road in question (Calusa Drive) purchased and built their homes with the knowledge that Calusa Drive would remain private. Now they are being faced with the possibility that their quiet neighborhood will be the major thoroughfare for a commercial enterprise that has over 150 people a day (in the slow season) visiting a very popular historic site. Their unpaved dirt road would have to meet current county road standards, would have to be widened and 100-year old trees cut down. Even the pioneer cemetery of the Santini family will be disturbed.
It’s unfortunate that developers who come into Collier County do not try to work amicably with the residents and long timesettlers. We’ve seen time after time, developers purchasing a beautiful piece of property, cut down native trees, build whatever they want and then leave, re-selling it to the first buyer. They are not interested in our heritage, our culture, our lives or our way of living which in this small community in the middle of Everglades is close. People know their neighbors; people care about each other; that’s what makes this place so special. Even my granddaughter who was six at the time came to visit me from Ft. Myers and said that this was the friendliest place, that everyone waves to you as you walk or drive down the street. This may be the community that stood up to Mr. Watson in 1910 when they took the law into their own hands but things are different today.
We have a community (which means a “social group…whose members reside in a specific locality…and often has a common cultural and historical heritage”). Developers coming here won’t fit into a “community” when they bulldoze first, then talk. Why can’t they just be kind and work things out for the mutual good of all? We’ve lost a lot through the years with urban sprawl; that’s why so many people cherish the Everglades area, the old Florida lifestyle, because we still maintain that neighborly love. Where is the love, y’all?