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25 GASPARILLA MAGAZINE NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2016 In October 2015, the Gasparilla Island Conservation and Improvement Association (GICIA) realized that a perfect storm was brewing: An offer had been made by a hotel/resort developer to purchase the Mercabo property, which includes approximately 30 acres, 185 wet slips and 4,700 feet of sea-walled bay frontage located at the entrance to Gasparilla Island. Just weeks before that offer was made, Charlotte County had renewed its effort to amend the Comprehensive Plan to weaken the restrictions within the Coastal High Hazard Area in a way that could have increased density on this 30-acre parcel from 3.5 units per acre to up to 65 units per acre. When the GICIA Board caught wind of this "storm," they realized that the only way to protect Boca Grande from the potential impacts of a highrise, high-density development on the Mercabo site was to purchase the property. The GICIA board of directors, including several former board members, knew that the time restraints proposed by the seller, along with the enormous fundraising involved, would be extremely challenging. However, they all felt strongly that the only way to minimize the potential negative impacts to Boca Grande was to control the 30-acre parcel as GICIA Land Conservancy property. The vision for the “Preserve at Mercabo" was to return it to its natural state and maintain it that way in perpetuity. The purchase price of the property was set at $20.6 million with a 90-day cash closing, so the GICIA board knew the fundraising would have to be an island-wide effort. After careful deliberation the GICIA board of directors voted unanimously to commit $1 million of the organization’s land conservancy funds to this purchase, and to move forward with the most extreme fundraising effort ever undertaken by the 45-year-old organization. Over the next 90 days, board members worked tirelessly to secure pledges for the $20.6 million purchase price, with a cash closing set for mid- January. Bayne Stevenson, the GICIA’s president at the time, said, “It is our hope that every resident of Boca Grande will understand the importance of protecting this strategic ‘gateway’ to Boca Grande, and that we will not have a second shot at acquiring this parcel and preserving it forever.” No one could have predicted just how supportive residents of Gasparilla Island and the surrounding areas would be. In 12 short weeks, the GICIA was able to reach the $20.6 million mark and finalize the deal on January 29, 2016. Of course that 12-week period was not all about the fundraising. The GICIA board wanted to be certain that the financial status, as well as the integrity of the GICIA itself, was protected. They decided early on in the process that it was imperative to insure that every part of this large transaction was as transparent as possible to the donors. This of course meant that due diligence had to be completed to insure there were no title issues, that the property appraised for at least purchase price and that the environmental assessments were completed and insured an environmentally clean site. When all of the due diligence was met, the GICIA board again unanimously voted to move forward on the purchase of the Mercabo Conference Center site. When the purchase was complete, the GICIA quickly went to work on demolition and ecological restoration. The association hired Forristall Enterprises Inc., a demolition company with more than 30 years of local experience (including Lemon Bay High School), and hired All Phase Construction to work as the general contractor during the demolition of the nine existing buildings on the site. On the ecological restoration side of the project, the GICIA enlisted the help of certified arborist and long-time GICIA consultant Rick Joyce. Rick has worked with us for years on successful land conservancy projects, and as Lance Isham, the GICIA's current president, stated, “The idea is to create a preserve, a well-protected bird and wildlife sanctuary with a landscape that contributes, in a simple and appropriate manner, to the entrance to Boca Grande.” As the GICIA prepared to begin demolition of the building, some unexpected tenants arrived. A pair of osprey decided to make their home atop one of the boat storage buildings. Ospreys are protected under the Federal Migratory Bird Act, which meant that demolition had to be delayed until the offspring fledged from the nest, a permit to relocate the empty nest had been awarded and its requirements completed. During this time, GICIA worked with local nonprofits to donate the furniture and fixtures of the


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