For the first time in its 14-year history, Cafe of Life has its own building in downtown Bonita Springs to hold meetings, keep an office, and store canned goods and clothing. Whether it can feed the needy there remains to be seen.
The Bonita Springs Woman’s Club recently donated the 3,000-square-foot building at 10540 Childers St. to Cafe.
At its meeting Wednesday, the City Council asked community development staff to research and clarify what social services, if any, are permitted at the site.
The Old 41 revitalization area between Terry and Dean streets, which includes the property, does not list a soup kitchen as a permitted use. It does allow offices.
Cafe feeds the needy on weekdays by the banyan tree downtown. Its board members are working on an agreement with the city under which Cafe would lease, for about $1 a year, a half-acre donated by Lee County to spend about $500,000 to build and maintain a park in the Leitner Creek/Rosemary Park neighborhood.
Councilman Steve McIntosh asked if the woman’s club building could be used as a fallback if the residents of Leitner Creek don’t embrace the park Cafe proposes to build there.
“If they want to conduct their services there, it doesn’t bother me at all because for so many years it’s been right there across the street,” Councilwoman Martha Simons said.
She asked community development staff to look into whether Cafe would be able to apply for a special exception to feed the needy there.
“I think that’s a city decision as to how we use that,” said Bruce Wheatley, vice chairman of Cafe’s board. “If the city would approve us serving there, it would be very, very convenient for us.”
He said the nonprofit organization is proceeding with plans to build a park in Leitner Creek. He said the community building would be about 2,500 square feet instead of 3,000 because Cafe now has the former women’s club building for meeting space, offices and storage.
A survey Cafe did in the spring found that the majority of the community’s residents supported a park there and was OK with Cafe using it in the mornings.
“We’re doing some additional survey work that council suggested. We’re doing a mail survey to nonresident homeowners as well,” Wheatley said.
Cafe is also inviting more than 600 households in the neighborhood to an ice cream social from 1-3 p.m. July 29 at the site. He said the ground will be painted and marked with signs showing where each part of the park will be, including the pavilion, grills, basketball courts and playground. He said the Lee County Sheriff’s Office and security consultants as well as Cafe’s officers will also be there to answer questions.
In the first five months of the year, Cafe served 10,165 meals, up from 9,022 during the same time last year.
“Our mix of clients has changed in the last three months. … Mothers and children are more than 60 percent. It always runs between 30 and 35 percent historically,” Wheatley said.
Cafe served 23,789 meals in 2011 and projects to serve more than 25,000 this year. Since it started keeping records 11 years ago, Cafe has served more than 200,000 meals.
Simons proposed a moratorium on soup kitchens while the issue is looked at but later withdrew the motion. “We don’t really have, in my opinion, the proper regulations in place either for where so-called soup kitchens can go in the city,” Simons said.
Homeless shelter moratorium
A moratorium on permits for homeless shelters in Bonita Springs went into effect May 18 for 12 months or until regulations are passed, whichever is shorter. On April 17, St. Matthew's submitted a development order application requesting to build a shelter with up to 260 beds at 9200 Cockleshell Court off Old 41 Road. On May 21, St. Matthew's submitted changes to the application, including reducing the maximum number of beds to 168.
At its June 6 meeting, the Bonita City Council hired Roetzel & Andress as outside counsel for $25,000 to research whether the moratorium applies to that application.
On Wednesday, the council voted 5-2 to waive a conflict with the law firm. Ken Jones, an attorney with Roetzel & Andress, took a case on Friday representing the Stallion Group, which is suing the city on the Shangri-La Road drainage project. The city is taking part of the property owner's land by eminent domain.
The majority of the council agreed the conflict is minor and separate from the homeless shelter issue.
Beverly Grady and Robert Pritt are the firm's attorneys representing the city.
Councilmen Peter Simmons and Bill Lonkart dissented. Simmons said residents had asked for an attorney more than 50 miles away to avoid any conflicts.
Simmons made a motion to have Roetzel & Andress as well as the law firms from Punta Gorda, Tallahassee and Fort Lauderdale that City Attorney Audrey Vance had offered as options come to the July 18 meeting to present why they should be chosen. The motion failed because only Simmons and Lonkart supported it.
Mayor Ben Nelson said the firm is competent and did not want to delay the legal research. Simons said she believes Grady and Pritt will be “pitbulls” for the city.
Simmons asked why the city is obligated to process the development order application if St. Matthew’s House has dropped out as a buyer for the site. “I feel like we’re entering the sixth scene of this play,” he said.
City Attorney Audrey Vance said the property owner, which is the estate of Jim Bernet, submitted the application and has the right to proceed with it even if there’s no end user.
City planning staff on Friday asked the property owner to provide more information on parking, landscaping and other building details.
The property owner has 180 days to respond. Once the city has the response back in hand, it has 30 days to make a decision on the application or request more information.