Goodland’s adopted flag pictures a dreamy fishing village, hard by azure blue waters framed by leafy mangroves and a shady mango tree. Tara O’Neill, an award winning artist and longtime Goodland resident, longs to preserve that image. It all started when her dad took his first vacation.
“My dad had his own HVAC business in White Plains but had never taken a vacation,” Tara said. “He told us he had figured out a way to get a free vacation. All he and mom had to do was come down to Marco Island, look at property for a day, and the [Mackle Brothers] would pay for their flight and put them up at a hotel.” Jack and Mary O’Neill made that trip in the winter of ‘65-66. They ended up buying a lot and a year later, sold their business and moved Tara, age 9, and her eight siblings into the home they had built on it. They never looked back. “It was a beautiful waterfront lot,” Tara said, “We could watch the Jolly Bridge being built.”
Tara was a member of Lely High School’s first graduating class in 1975, and spent a good part of her 20’s working odd jobs and travelling around the country. Returning to Marco Island, she began a 16-year stint tending bar at the Little Bar Restaurant in Goodland. Along the way she bought a house in Goodland, graduated from USF (1995) with degrees in English and Fine Arts, and met George Vellis, whom she would marry in 2007. She got George’s attention after a good meal at the original Verdi’s Restaurant, when as an appreciative diner, she sent a beer back to the chef, who happened to be Vellis. After their marriage, she moved to George’s home on Marco Island but still owns her Goodland house. They have no children.
Today George and Tara are co-owners of the Tara O’Neill Studio on Marco Island, where Tara paints, presides, and displays her work. Her business may be in Marco Island, but Tara, like many of us here, lost her heart to Goodland years ago. “I have always loved Goodland,” she says, “It was sweeter and friendlier and loaded with old Florida charm. Here we are all mixed together, dirt poor and billionaire. Somehow we have retained our sense of community.”
It became Tara’s resolve to make Goodland into a haven for the arts, a place where people could receive instruction and create and display their art. “Goodland is an ideal place for art programs,” she says, “There are a lot of talented people here and an enormous amount of creativity.” In September 2012, twelve of those people met at Margood Park to form the Goodland Arts Alliance (GAA) with the agreed upon mission – “To preserve, promote, and advance the cultural presence in the Village of Goodland through Art, History, and Education.” From those original 12, the GAA has swelled to nearly 100 members, and meets monthly, Tara says. They stage two outdoor arts and music festivals in season and have an active website and Facebook page. Tara O’Neill has been its only president and the glue that holds it all together. Margood Park became ground zero for the GAA’s mission.
In 2005, Collier County bought Margood Park from Elhannon and Sandy Combs who had run a trailer park there since 1986. It was crammed with old trailers and older cottages. The Combs wanted the approximate fouracre park to be protected against future development. The county agreed, proposing to preserve the character of Goodland and its waterfront and to create a recreation facility for the village. The purchase price was $2.54 million, with $635,000 put up by Collier County and the remainder ($1.905 million) coming from the state. Florida Forever provided the funds, and the Florida Communities Trust (FCT) administers it. Both are a part of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. According to Nancy Olson, a Collier County regional parks manager and local Goodland resident active in the community, Collier County has spent approximately an additional $1,674,000 remodeling the park, which included removing all the trailers, some of the cottages, and restoring the pristine water front. Annual operating costs are about $200,000 a year, Olson says.
The park was reopened by the county in 2012, minus the trailers but containing eleven of the fishing cottages, dating from the 1920s to ‘50s. The GAA had big plans for the cottages, which had been vacant since 2005. “We envisioned a center where art could be taught and exhibited,” said Tara, “Those buildings would have been perfect for this.” A tour of the buildings was quickly arranged with a former representative of Collier County Parks and Recreation. A couple weeks later, without notice, all but four of the cottages were demolished. Olson says she was not part of that decision. “Many of us felt demolished with them,” Tara said, “These buildings were hallmark to our identity as a fishing village – one of the last remaining on this coast.” After the demolition, the remaining four buildings were fenced off from the rest of the park. Since 2005, through neglect and the ravages of the weather, these remaining buildings had deteriorated to a shocking extent. The GAA had taken this into account and had plans for a concerted fundraising effort to help pay for the restoration. But they had to move fast.
For a while, things seemed to be going smoothly. County Commissioners unanimously gave the site a designation of historic status and then started negotiations with the GAA to work out a long term lease, which would allow the GAA to go in and restore the buildings. The elephant in the room, turned out to be the Florida Communities Trust, which because of its stake in the purchase of Margood Park, had the last word in how things would be handled. “They simply could not agree on a plan,” said Tara, “Their board was constantly in a state of flux. Meanwhile the cottages continued to rot and there was nothing we could do about it.” By last summer, after numerous meetings, many on the mainland, Tara was worn down by the Byzantinian pace of negotiations. “How hard could it be for a community to save [a few] cottages?” she had thought. Now she knew.
In September 2017, one week before Irma struck, I accompanied Tara on a tour of the decrepit buildings. It was an emotional experience for her. All but one of the buildings were in the last stages of decay. “This didn’t have to happen. It breaks my heart,” she said, as she despondently poked and prodded her way around the sight, “I don’t know if [restoration of these buildings] is now even feasible, practical or affordable.” After the hurricane, the buildings were still standing.
Tara has since heard that Collier County now has plans to demolish all but one of the four remaining cottages. Olson has confirmed that demolition of three of the four buildings is in fact being considered. Aware of the GAA’s frustrations, Olson notes that there were some insurmountable issues arising during negotiations. To avoid inevitable bureaucratic red tape, the possibility of GAA’s taking over the project was discussed. “It wasn’t feasible,” Olson said, “[The GAA] just didn’t have the resources.”
Over time, all avenues and issues were explored and discussed, said Olson. Meanwhile, the maddeningly slow process (it has been going on for six years) grinds on with still more proposals to be submitted to more state agencies. The Florida Division of Historical Resources, another layer of bureaucracy, must finally weigh in and give its final approval.
In the increasingly likely possibility that Tara will not get her fishing cottages for an art center, she’s already exploring a fallback plan which just might work – at least to give the GAA a Goodland home. The Community Center is an old firehouse with a second floor that sits unfinished and unused. It is owned by the Goodland Civic Association (GCA), but the GAA also holds its meetings there. No one ventures upstairs because of its steep stairways. Last month, both boards unanimously supported the idea of the GAA installing an elevator and renovating and occupying the second floor. “We like the idea of both organizations working out of the same building,” said GCA president, Greg Bello. The GAA has on hand about $40,000, resulting mostly from money raised for restoration of the cottages. Tara hopes that, if necessary, those funds can be applied to renovation of the second floor of the Community Center. Otherwise they will be refunded, she says.
And so another campaign might begin for the intrepid artist, who has pumped life into the Marco Island artists’ community and now wants to do the same for Goodland. It will cost a lot of money, but I wouldn’t bet against her. It’s bound to be easier than negotiating with the government.
Barry was a practicing attorney before he worked as a Special Agent of the FBI for 31 years. Barry worked for several government agencies another ten years before retiring to Goodland in 2006. Barry is presently the Secretary of the Goodland Civic Association.