Hopefully routine will stick

Hopefully routine will stick

I felt alive this morning as Lucy and I headed out the door shortly after 6 a.m. to go for a morning run, something we have failed to do for way too many weeks. This morning I was reminded why I need to stick with this running routine of mine.

I was spoiled for two years. I had the opportunity to walk away from my work whenever my heart desired because I worked from the comfort of my own home as a freelance journalist. Since we were living in NE Tennessee at the time, it was not crucial to go running first thing in the morning to beat the heat. We usually went mid-morning to  mid-afternoon when the temperatures were comfortable to run in .

Now I am faced with a new challenge . . . beating the Florida heat, which means going super early in the morning before the sun becomes too intense.

As of June 8, my freedom became no longer as I started my full-time job as the editor of The Islander. I will be completely honest, it has been extremely difficult putting myself on a schedule that included both exercising and giving myself enough time to complete my work without being at the office for all hours of the day and night.

With Jason and I working completely different schedules, I stay up later than I should to spend some time with him, which makes it hard to get up super early the next morning.

So, setting all my excuses aside, Lucy and I went for a 3-mile run last night around 6 p.m. The sky was overcast and there was a breeze, so I thought why not, let’s go for a run. Lucy took off at full speed as soon as we rounded our corner, which became almost a crawl by the time we finished our 3-miles. The run was sticky and buggy, which was a new experience for me. When we got home I had bugs stuck to my arms, shirt and in other places that surprised me. It was gross running through windows of bugs, but I was determined, so we kept on going.

I felt energized in a way I haven’t experienced in a long time. I know running is my outlet. I know running is what clears my head. So, this feeling of energy was welcomed with open arms even when the exhaustion hit.

With the motivation in full swing, I got out of bed before 6 a.m. this morning so I could put some more miles on these running shoes of mine that are still brand new. I figured I would head out by myself this morning to give Lucy some rest after last night’s run. When she saw me putting on my running shoes, she went running into the bedroom and laid in bed with Jason. So, I continued to get everything ready. I unlocked the door and this little puppy reappeared at my feet eager to go with me. After putting her harness on she was ready whining because I was not opening the door fast enough.

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Our run started in the dark and ended with a beautiful sunrise painting the Florida sky an array of oranges. It was by far the perfect way to start a Monday. I was thankful I dragged myself out of bed and started a routine that will hopefully stick.

I’m pretty proud of Lucy and I. In two days, we have ran 5.39 miles after taking 13 days off.

Maybe I needed to take some time off to fully appreciate running again. I know both Lucy and I need that 30-minutes or so workout.

Since we are now starting a new month, I am determined to go running at least four or five times a week like I used to in Tennessee. Time to get this body back into shape!

Strangely beautiful animals

Strangely beautiful animals

This morning I had an interview on Captiva with Matt, a Florida Gulf Coast University grad student working on a grant challenge about American pen shells. We sat under an umbrella near the water during our interview, which provided such a laid back relaxing atmosphere. The interview was fascinating.

After learning about pen shells and the beautiful pearls they produce, he asked if I wanted to see his home, a sailboat out in the bay near Jensen’s Marina. Before we made it to the end of the dock, we stopped and watched a family of manatees swim around and come up for air. Matt said about seven manatees hang out at the marina, which included a few young manatees. A smile was plastered on my face the entire time. I just could not help it . . . they made me happy as I watched their every move.

I was mesmerized by these strangely beautiful creatures that were so docile. Today was the first time I have been so up-close and personal with these giant animals. It was hard to walk away because they kept drawing me in, which resulted in a slew of photographs.

This was definitely the highlight of my day.

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‘We embrace this’

‘We embrace this’

Bubble Room to be featured on Food Network television series

Published in the Island Reporter June 24, 2015

A few months ago a director, producer and food stylist spent 10 and a half hours filming every nook and cranny of the Bubble Room Restaurant for a new show on Food Network, “Craziest Restaurant in America.”

“They shot every inch of this place,” Bubble Room Manager Stephen Peach said, adding that they also talked to many customers and their staff.

The Food Network contacted the Bubble Room and asked if they were interested in being featured on the television series, which he said they could not turn down.

Bubble Room Restaurant Manager Stephen Peach and General Manager Rachel Peach.

Bubble Room Restaurant Manager Stephen Peach and General Manager Rachel Peach.

The restaurant was approached for their orange crunch cake, a yellow cake layered with an almond brown sugar crunch with orange cream cheese icing and bubble bread.

“Of course we accepted,” he said. “It’s nice to get attention to our area. It’s another opportunity to get us noticed. The island is built on tourism . . . the more the better.”

Rachel Peach, Bubble Room general manager said it was a really cool experience having the filming crew at the restaurant.

“It happened really quick . . . within two weeks (they were) here shooting,” she said after they received the initial phone call.

The series, “Craziest Restaurant in America,” which is hosted by Graham Elliot has already aired three shows “Too Hot To Handle;” “Eat at Your Own Risk” and “Big, Bigger, Biggest.”

The Bubble Room will be one of five restaurants featured in the “Weird, Weirder, Weirdest” episode airing at 10 p.m. Wednesday, June 24.

“We embrace this,” Stephen said of the “Weird, Weirder, Weirdest” themed episode.

He said a food stylist made their three dishes orange crunch cake, bubble bread and the some like it hot shrimp dish look pretty for the episode.

“Everything was perfectly placed,” Stephen said.

He said they wanted to add the staff’s favorite dish, some like it hot shrimp, because it’s a seafood dish that offers an “islandy” appeal with its tropical fruit.

Although the couple does not know how they rank among the top five restaurants, Stephen said they have seen some commercial’s advertising the episode, which features one of their servers lighting the flaming cheese with a chicken hat on his head.

Katie Gardenia opened the Bubble Room 36 years ago with 24 seats. Rachel said Gardenia lived on the top floor and the restaurant was located on the bottom floor.

“Slowly the Bubble Room kicked them out of their house,” Rachel said because of its popularity.

Now the restaurant has 156 seats on three floors.

Rachel said the Bubble Room is returning to its original roots with the help of Gardenia. She said Gardenia recently came back and did the artwork for their menu, which now features six new dinner items, as well as helped in redecorating the 1930’s Macy’s display room featuring Santa’s workshop.

“We enjoy having her in and around the building,” Rachel said, adding that it’s been a cool experience to get to know Gardenia and hear about the Bubble Room’s history and the island.

‘These are our schools, yours and mine’

‘These are our schools, yours and mine’

State of Our Schools: Lee students rising to the challenges faced today

Published in Cape Coral Daily Breeze May 29, 2015 issue

Superintendent Nancy Graham

Superintendent Nancy Graham

Although students today are faced with rigorous expectations to prepare them for a competitive workforce, School District Superintendent Dr. Nancy Graham told those in attendance at the State of Our Schools – Partners in Education breakfast Friday morning that students are rising to the challenge with great success.

With this year’s State of Our Schools theme of “Star Wars” The Foundation for Lee County Public Schools President and CEO Marshall Bower dressed as Yoda and Graham dressed as Princess Leia.

Superintendent Nancy Graham and The Foundation for Lee County Public Schools President and CEO Marshall Bower.

Superintendent Nancy Graham and The Foundation for Lee County Public Schools President and CEO Marshall Bower.

“The summation of what I know . . . Star Wars goes like this – there are good guys and one really bad guy dressed in black. So, I had to ask myself how in the world do I relate all that to education,” she said. “Yoda has very few words to say. And when he says them, they are received as profound and lasting.”

Graham’s speech was broken down into seven lessons shared through Yoda.

Her first lesson, “you must unlearn what you have learned,” touched upon the difficult tasks with which educators are faced. Graham said most people have gone to school and many want to serve as local experts in running a school.

“Though it is comfortable for us to relate current life to our own experiences, it would be really helpful in the case of public education for individuals to unlearn or at least suspend personal experiences and see education for what it is today,” she said. “Heavily legislative, often politicized and insufficiently funded.”

Public education has changed in terms of requirements for high school graduation. Graham said years ago students completed their high school math requirements after finishing algebra one.

“You all know those same folks never had to pass a standardized test or end of course exam in math, history or science,” she said. “It’s likely in most cases those same people are reaping the benefits of a well-lived professional life. But today, none of those same people would be able to earn a high school diploma based on the current requirements facing our freshman class, the class of 2018.”

This year’s senior class had to earn at least a half credit of online courses to receive a high school diploma.

When adding rigorous, challenging and prescriptive academic expectations to life experiences of students that are already faced without a stable family unit, homelessness, poverty, English as a second language, neighborhood violence, mental illness and physical or emotional abuse the chance to become a kid may never come, she said.

Through all of those difficulties, Graham said there is a positive note. In 2014, Lee County achieved the highest reading learning gains in its history; performed above the state average in points earned for the state grading system; improved the district grade and this year’s high school graduates earned a combined $50 million in scholarships.

Her second lesson was titled “difficult to see, always in motion is the future, which focused on predicting what students might need to be prepared beyond their kindergarten through 12th grade education.

“As today’s educators, we are charged with preparing our students for the workforce. A workforce full of jobs yet to be defined,” Graham said. “This is the new way of work . . . preparing the future for the unknown. This is why we must focus on teaching our students how to think and problem solve. To look at math and science and literature from angles and many lenses.”

The future for the students is why the district focuses on STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – as well as STEAM, because Lee County also includes the arts in its schools. Comprehensive high schools, which allow students to earn diplomas and industry certifications, are also offered to prepare students for the workforce.

Graham said the district also invests in such student leadership programs as JROTC, where Lee County ranks as the second largest in the country.

Another lesson, “truly wonderful the mind of a child” spoke to the district’s responsibility of acknowledging the minds they reach through relationships and programs to nurture students.

“You think Yoda stops teaching just because a student does not want to hear – a teacher Yoda Is” shared information about the teachers of Lee County.

Graham said next year the school district will employ just under 6,000 teachers, 2,000 of whom have a master’s degree or higher. She said it is no easy task to hire and retain the best talent because the School District of Lee County is the biggest employer from Tampa to Miami.

“We are back to a growth pattern of an additional 1,500 to 2,000 students a year,” Graham said. “We are projected to be in that mode for the next 10 years.”

The lesson also shared information about the newest career opportunities for teachers. A teacher leader spends part of their day teaching and the other half coaching other teachers, which Graham said has been successful.

Grants through the National Education Association have also helped in closing the learning gap in Lee County. What started as assistance for 10 schools, will have reached 30 schools in 2016 with the grant.

“When 900 years old you reach, look as good as you will not,” highlighted the capital budget funds decrease. Graham said the combination of lower property taxes, reduced impact fees and reduced funding from the state in the past five years resulted in $656 million loss to the district’s capital budget.

“As a district and a community, we can no longer pretend the losses have no impact as we face a growing number of students,” she said. “These are our schools, yours and mine. Our schools need to be maintained while new schools will ultimately have to be built to house the children that we know are coming.”

Another lesson titled “Try no. Do or do not. There is no try,” shared the importance of partnerships and their involvement.

“All in means more than just writing a check . . . though we are grateful for your financial support. In this partnership all in is about being an advocate of our schools, correcting misperceptions when you hear them or sharing the positives when others may want to be negative,” Graham said. “All in means we make promises to one another and we keep them.”

Some of those promises include a balance budget without using reserved funds; measurable three year strategic plan; nationally credited school district ; increase learning gains among all groups of students; at least one school counselor at every school; 325 fewer required tests; forward movement with technology including the start of one-on-one devices for students; C to a B district and on the way to becoming an A district, as well as continuing to work with the community to keep its vision.

She closed her speech by asking the audience to “pass on always what you have learned.”

“The more who know more the better and stronger the partnership becomes among us,” Graham said. “Our doors are open to you as we move forward and I encourage you to visit our schools. I will personally take you.

County to consider raising impact fees

County to consider raising impact fees

Published in Cape Coral Daily Breeze Feb. 27, 2015 issue

The Lee County Board of County Commissioners will begin its discussions about a possible impact fee increase this Tuesday during a public hearing.

“I can only hope that it goes well,” Commissioner Frank Mann said of the public hearing. “I’m nervous to say the least.”

The current fees are set at 20 percent of the estimated cost of constructing such things as roads, parks and schools necessitated by growth.

Building Industry Association Executive Vice President Brenda Thomas said they would love the impact fees to remain at 20 percent because they feel the market is still emerging.

“People who have been struggling for more than five years to find a job are now going to be threatened. That is hard to take,” she said.

The biggest issue the Building Industry Association is having right now is the uncertainty of where the impact fee rate will fall.

“Builders are in contracts with homeowners right now and they don’t know what to put in the contract,” Thomas said of impact fees.

The fees were reduced 80 percent two years ago when the commission agreed to a temporary reduction to spur the economy.

“The reason we changed it (was) while the building industry was on its back, but those days are gone,” Mann said. “Permits for construction are flying off the shelves. The industry is very healthy and alive and the impact fees need to be restored.”

The starting point for Tuesday’s hearing would bring the charges on new construction up to 45 percent of cost or more than double the current amount charged.

While commissioners will start their conversation at the 45 percent rate, county staff is recommending that the commission provide a 15 percent discount, or 85 percent of cost, which would bring the fee from $2,900 to $11,000 on a new home.

If the county commissioners approve 45 percent impact fees, Thomas said it will have a very negative impact on the building industry at this point.

“At 45 percent, you are looking at almost a $3,200 increase for a single family home, depending on which is the basis point for 45 percent,” she said.

Mann said he is in favor of restoring back to 100 percent because Lee County desperately needs revenue for new infrastructure because thousands of people are moving into the area and permits for new homes are up again.

Thomas, on the other hand, said although they are seeing an increase, they are not on “fire yet” regarding the number of permits pulled. She said a lot of the permits have been for multi-family apartments and commercial properties.

Mann said where ever he goes, he has 100 percent support on his position from the residents of Lee County.

“I knew it was the right thing to do from the beginning,” Mann said, adding that overwhelming support from the community it only reaffirms his belief.

Mann voted against the one-year reduction with the option for a second year in March 2013.

At 100 percent, including a cost adjustment, the fee would be $12,985 to build a new home. At 85 percent the fee would be $11,116 for a single family home. Currently, at 20 percent, the fee is $2,942.

“It worked very well for 20 years, so why would we change that?” Mann asked. “It needs to be a part of our revenue stream now. Impact fees have never kept anyone from moving here. The 20 years we have had them was the fastest expansion period in the history of the county.”

Mann said he does not see how it is fair to ask residents of Lee County to subsidize its growth requirements when there is a perfect example of a program that works – impact fees.

“It’s only fair that growth pays for growth, and the new people coming here pay for the roads and school classrooms they are demanding,” he said.

School Board member Steve Teuber said the school board voted unanimously to support 100 percent restoration.

“We had three things happen over the last five years, which was kind of the perfect storm,” he said.

Property values declined over those five years, the school district’s capital millage was cut from 2.0 mills to 1.5 mills and the County Commission reduced impact fees, including those for schools, by 80 percent.

Teuber said $640 million was lost in potential income. He said the district is carrying a $450 million capital debt with an annual debt service of $42 million.

“We need money from any source possible,” Teuber said.

He said if the school district gets $9 million from impact fees, they still need $300 million more.

“Nine million isn’t going to make the road,” Teuber said. “We need about $40 million a year.”

Even with an increase in impact fees, the school board’s needs still are not met.

“I certainly know that whatever the Board of County Commissioners do is not going to be the answer,” he said.

With that said, Teuber expressed that the school board wants the county commission to do what they feel is right based on their collaborative work.

“If they give us 55 percent, we are going to say thank you very much,” he said.

Thomas said the biggest issue is the commissioners have a big infrastructure need in Lee County and Southwest Florida. She said impact fees are just a small portion of solving that problem.

The impact fee covers only the new infrastructure that would have to be built to accommodate additional population.

By law, the money collected from impact fees cannot be used for maintenance or regular government operations. The money can only be used to add capacity. In other words, the funds can be used to add a lane to a road, but not to repave a road. They can be used to construct a new bridge but not repair an old bridge.

Thomas said the amount of money that it would take to fix road congestion could not be solved with impact fees. She said the traffic congestion on 41 or on the way to the beach could not be fixed with impact fees.

“Many issues we are facing cannot be solved with one solution,” Thomas said. “You don’t want to solve a problem by hurting someone else. A true community solves the problem together.”

Thomas said another issue with raising impact fees is the effect it will have on the valuation of all properties in Lee County.

She said the issue at hand is how do they manage growth in a productive way that leads to a better, more user friendly community without taking the No. 1 economic drivers and throwing them under the bus.

“Raising impact fees to the maximum will not fix the problem,” Thomas said.

The board will meet at 9:30 a.m. in the Commission Chambers, 2120 Main St,. Fort Myers.

 

 

County eyes impact fee hike

County eyes impact fee hike

Published in Cape Coral Daily Breeze Feb. 5, 2015 issue

The Lee County Board of County Commissioners will begin its discussions about a possible impact fee increase during a public hearing scheduled for March 3.

The current fee is set at 20 percent of the estimated cost of constructing such things as roads, parks and schools necessitated by growth. The starting point for next month’s hearing would bring the charge on new construction up to 45 percent of cost or more than double the current amount charged.

District 4 Commissioner Brian Hamman said the analogy he uses for impact fees is it is a “set up charge,” or an “activation fee” for joining a community when building a new home. The impact fee covers the new infrastructure they would possibly have to build to accommodate additional population.

By law, the money collected from impact fees cannot be used for maintenance or regular government operations. The money can only be used to add capacity.

In other words, the funds can be used to add a lane to a road, but not to repave a road. They can be used to construct a new bridge but not repair an old bridge.

“These are supposed to be fees that cover the impact of growth and not regular maintenance,” Hamman said.

The dollars collected from impact fees also have to be expended in the same district where the money was collected.

“If you are going to collect fees in Estero, you have to spend that impact fee in Estero,” he explained. “It is the most volatile of funds because they rely strictly on the economy and construction being good.”

Hamman said there does not need to be high impact fees to generate a lot of revenue.

“You will encourage more growth and more building with lower fees and more revenue to build infrastructure with,” he said.

The impact fees collection rate has the potential of going from 20 percent to 100 percent of cost on March 13 if the Lee County Board of County Commissioners does not take further action as that is when the reduction to 20 percent of cost is set to “sunset.”

At 100 percent, including a cost adjustment, it would add a fee of $12,985 to build a new home and $11,116 for a single family home at the 85 percent rate. Currently, at 20 percent, the fee is $2,942.

“If you were to let the reduction expire and let the fee jump up to $13,000, you are adding $10,000 worth of cost to the house,” Hamman said. “The builder is going to pass it onto the consumer. That cost is going to hurt a middle class home. I am trying to think of how we can keep housing affordable for families that want to build a house.”

While commissioners will start their conversation at the 45 percent rate, county staff is recommending that the commission provide a 15 percent discount, or 85 percent of cost. He said at 85 percent, the fee would go from $2,900 to $11,000 on a new home.

“I think you would slow down the market with that kind of increase,” Hamman said. “My position is that a 55 percent reduction actually means a $7,000 saving to a middle class family. That could mean a difference for families of whether or not they continue to build a home.”

Brian Rist, immediate past president of the Cape Coral Construction Industry Association said it is obvious that Lee County needs money, but he does not think impact fees are the correct way of going about generating the funds.

“There are other ways of generating revenue that seem to me to be more logical,” he said. “Like if you are going to build roads, why not add a few cents to the gas tax?”

Rist said the problem with impact fees is the charge is only assessed to new construction. Currently, 80 percent of the homes being built are $200,000 or less.

In regard to impact fees to build schools, Rist said the majority of people buying new homes in Lee County are moving from up north after their kids are grown and out of the house.

“Impact fees don’t affect people going to school,” Rist said. “But when real estate changes hands, that is everybody.”

Rist believes the commission is going to set the impact fees anywhere from 45 percent to 85 percent of cost.

“At this time new construction is just starting to return to a good level. It is definitely improving,” he said. “But it is just starting to recover and things like this could set us back again.”

One solution Rist believes would help would be through a real estate transfer fee. He said if a smaller amount of money is paid when real estate changes hands it would make more sense.

“When real estate goes down, when the economy goes down, people don’t buy new houses, but real estate constantly changes hands,” he said.

In March 2013, Hamman said the county commission decided to temporarily reduce the impact fee rate by 80 percent to help jumpstart the local economy.

“That is really largely because our economy in Lee County is driven by growth and new construction,” he said. “Since 2007, we really saw no new growth. Permitting was dead. People were out of work. Long-time businesses were closing down.”

Hamman said the commissioners really could not find a way to climb out of the recession.

Single family permits pulled went from more than 9,000 per year at the peak of the construction boom to 373 permits in 2011.

Lee County is starting to see the rise in permits pulled with 933 last year.

Although the growth is starting to appear, Hamman said they are only about a third of where they were before 2000. He said they were at a sustainable growth rate they could handle at about 2,600 permits a year.

Bitter cold and gloomy

Bitter cold and gloomy

This is my second year experiencing the winter months in Tennessee and I have to admit I still have not become used to the bitter cold and gloomy days.

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It’s a love, hate type of relationship. I love living in a state that has four seasons, but I hate how the sun disappears for months at a time during the winter.

I miss the sunshine. I miss not having to put layer upon layer on before heading outside. Most of all, I miss wearing flip-flops where ever I go. Yep, I blame that on Florida. It was rare you would find me in any other shoes but sandals.

It’s only the third week of January. Still quite a few days left until the spring arrives.

I tell Jason all the time, the cold temperatures would not be that bad if we had something to show for it, like snow. We have not had any snow on the ground so far this winter.

The good thing about this winter is the temperatures haven’t been all that bad. Well until January hit. Although I can handle cooler temperatures this year, my body still has not accepted temperatures 20 degrees and below quite yet.

I remember having major cabin fever last winter. I won’t say I was depressed by any means, but my mood was all over the place because of the dreary days. Jason and I went from constantly being outside – walking, hiking – to being stuck indoors.

This year, in an effort to nip those feelings in the butt, I have taken to exercising outside. It helps that I have a puppy now that needs to go outside every few hours.

I quit going to the gym in September because I fell in love with running outdoors. I no longer liked being stuck within the confinement of gym walls.

Weather permitting, I have gone for a run at least two or three times a week since the cold winter temperatures began. Some of those runs were in temperatures I never thought I would attempt.

With all of that said, I am having a hard time getting motivated to face the bitter cold dreary days to go for a run. It’s kind of discouraging because I achieved a new distance on Sunday.

Every morning I have woke with the excitement of going for a run, surpassing my latest distance, but then walking outside slowly diminishes that thought.

I hope the motivation returns tomorrow. I know that fresh air, even cold air, will do me some good after a hectic week of writing and meeting deadlines.

“The sun’ll come out tomorrow” . . . .