Bonita Springs staff will ask Lee County to transfer to the city a half-acre in the Leitner Creek neighborhood so it can negotiate a lease agreement with Cafe of Life for a park it would use to feed the poor on weekday mornings.
The City Council voted 4-3 Wednesday to authorize city staff to go forward.
Cafe, which serves meals by the banyan tree in downtown, has been looking for its own permanent site for years.
“This is so little to ask but would be such a very big gift,” said Rae Ann McCall, one of the Cafe’s 300 volunteers.
Martina Ventura is one of 80-120 people who eat at Cafe on an average day. “I come to say thank you,” she said through a translator. “They help me with diapers, wipeys.” She said her husband works but she cannot because she has two small children.
Cafe, which partners with the Salvation Army and Family Health Centers, also distributes clothing and medicine.
Mayor Ben Nelson, Steve McIntosh, Steven Slachta and Bill Lonkart voted to approve the proposal. Janet Martin, Peter Simmons and Martha Simons dissented because of concerns they have about people walking through the neighborhood to get to Cafe.
Martin said she would not want Cafe at the end of her street. “How dare I say anything is better for someone’s else neighborhood?” said Martin, adding she’s gotten calls from concerned constituents. “I would not want strangers going down my street either.”
Jay Arend, Bonita’s former mayor, helped Cafe find the site, left over from the Imperial Parkway extension. County officials have indicated they’re willing to return it to Bonita.
Arend said the Lee County Sheriff’s Office would patrol the neighborhood in the first few weeks to make sure nobody is loitering.
Cafe plans to spend $400,000-$600,000 to build and maintain a 1,625-square-foot covered pavilion, a catering kitchen where the prepared meals would be brought, basketball courts, restrooms, a playground, grills and security system.
At the council’s request, Cafe’s research team surveyed 141, or 24 percent of Rosemary Park/Leitner Creek’s 593 households.
Ninety-two percent of the 137 who responded are in favor of a park, and 92.4 percent of the 131 who responded are OK with Cafe using the park.
Vicky Charles, 51, who eats at Cafe, would like to see it use the former Bonita Springs Woman’s Club building. “I’ve been working at hotels. … I do not make that much money. At the end of the week, I count on resources like Cafe of Life,” she said.
The woman’s club last spring donated to Cafe its 3,000-square-foot building on Childers Street across from the banyan tree, but it is in the city’s redevelopment area and is not zoned to allow a soup kitchen. Cafe is using it for meetings, office space and storage.
Simons, a Bonita Lions Club board member, said its Pennsylvania Avenue building has zoning that would allow it. “Give it a month. See if we can talk to the Lions,” she said.
McIntosh said the City Council shouldn’t continue to ask Cafe to come back. “I think that’s inappropriate,” said McIntosh, adding it doesn’t prohibit Cafe from talking to the Lions.