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RSW Living Magazine

It’s a Natural: Lovers Key to Get Innovative ‘Welcome and Discovery Center’

Lovers Key State Park comprises 1,600 acres.

There’s a lot to love at Lovers Key State Park. That’s why more than a million people go every year to fish, paddle, hike, birdwatch and just relax on 1,600 acres between Fort Myers Beach and Bonita Beach.

Renderings of the exhibition areas and the architecture of the center’s west side.

A big, new addition to Lovers Key will enhance those visits by showcasing the park’s ecosystems, enabling all ages to learn more and help protect this slice of paradise. What started as a dream eight years ago—to have a visitors’ center—is about to become reality as a dynamic “welcome and discovery center,” set to open in 2019.

“It’s an exciting time,’’ says Rich Donnelly, president of Friends of Lovers Key, or FOLKS, the supportive fundraising organization working to collect $1.3 million for the center. Those funds will complement the hard-fought $4 million construction budget from the state. “It’s a new game for Lovers Key once this building goes up,’’ Donnelly notes.

For the first time, Lovers Key—second-busiest of Florida’s 174 state parks—by next summer will have dedicated indoor space with seating for 75 people. Total capacity will be 200 with connecting outdoor porches. Ranger talks, exhibits, civic and club meetings, and school field trips are envisioned, and maybe much more, depending on park system and FOLKS policymaking.

The center will offer 4,000 square feet under air. “It’s really going to be a neat building—not your typical state park visitors’ center designed in the 1950s. Our displays will be more modern than stuffed rattlesnakes,” explains Donnelly. “Our design is intended to reflect the park and the surrounding Bonita-Estero-Fort Myers Beach area, which will be using it.’’

For example, pilings supporting the main floor are designed to look like mangrove roots. “Visitors will remember and talk about it,’’ adds Donnelly.

He speaks with special insight. Donnelly is a semi-retired architect who volunteered initial, rough sketches upon learning of the idea eight years ago. At that time he was working as a tram driver and offered his design services to FOLKS, to jump-start the visionary conversation.

That evolved to a focus on education. Permanent highlights of the center will be exhibits explaining distinct components of Lovers Key, including beaches and dunes; the abundant manatees, alligators, turtles, birds and fish; and mangroves and other trees and plants. A centrally located statue of a manatee is sure to become an irresistible selfie backdrop, Donnelly predicts.

Although not yet part of the plans, a history exhibit on Lovers Key would attract attention. It was dedicated as a state park in 1983 and joined in 1996 with the then-existing Carl E. Johnson Park, a Lee County facility. Dog Beach remains a county park to the south.

The Johnson/Lovers Key endeavor stands as a testimonial to what public agencies with foresight can achieve for the public interest. Early planning documents show the driving force was as simple as protecting the land from the perils of development and to assure waterfront and beach access for a growing population.

Lovers Key itself was earmarked for more than 4,000 residential units before the state stepped in. As former Bonita Springs Historical Society president Charlie Strader puts it, “We are so lucky to have it as a public park as opposed to private condos as planned when it was dredged.”

Robert Steiger, park manager until retiring this past May, offers a well-rounded take on the role of education at the welcome and discovery center. He explains that visitors “will learn why it is important to protect and preserve these areas for future generations. It will be a great educational center for students of all ages. My hope is that it will promote stewardship while encouraging visitors to recreate in a non-consumptive manner.’’

The FOLKS fundraising effort for the center is known as The Discovery Campaign, and is headed up by Kae Moore. “We want to inspire our visitors to this unique state park to come inside our new building and learn about the past, present and future of this part of Southwest Florida,” he says. “We hope to inspire our visitors to go outside and actually experience this knowledge firsthand.

“The new welcome and discovery center is for all ages, and gifts are tax-deductible,’’ Moore adds, mentioning that he can be reached at 239-898-2492. Naming rights for everything from the center itself to the bookstore and meeting rooms are available.


Friends of Lovers Key

8700 Estero Blvd., Fort Myers Beach

Jeff Lytle is the retired editorial page editor and TV host from the Naples Daily News. He now lives in Bonita Springs.