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Lee County Pulls Together

There is a new shopping center being built on the corner of Sabal Palm Boulevard and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard in Fort Myers, Florida. At first glance it looks like any other new construction site on any other corner in any other city. It is backed by a developer, funded by a bank and an economic development corporation, and erected by a construction company. But this shopping center is different - it was started by citizens.

When a small band of concerned citizens formed "Lee County Pulling Together" (LCPT) in 1997, none of them ever expected that one of the results of the LCPT study circles would be a shopping center. What had brought them together was a study showing that Fort Myers/Lee County was the most racially segregated community in the South. The group decided to use study circles to help Lee County residents address issues of race, racism, and segregation.

From the beginning, there were some pretty influential people in LCPT, including Fritz Jacobi, the publisher of the Fort Myers News-Press, and the Rev. Dr. Wayne Robinson, a prominent local pastor. But what the group really needed was a coordinator to make the study circles happen, and they lacked the funding to hire someone. They convinced Annie Estlund, a member of Robinson's congregation, to take the job as a volunteer.

If your grandmother had the people skills of a high-priced consultant, the conviction of a civil rights leader, the organizational acumen of Radar O'Reilly, and the self-assurance to nail down kickoff commitments via cell phone while holing a putt on the 15th green, she would be Annie Estlund. With Estlund's energy as the driving force, LCPT held two successive rounds of study circles in 1997 and 1998, engaging over 600 citizens.

Participants came up with lots of action ideas, ranging from simple volunteer activities to much more ambitious projects. In the last two years, study circle participants have: created a multiracial community choir, sorted canned goods at food bank, painted and tiled a Habitat for Humanity house, and cleaned up a two-mile stretch of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. They've created a cookbook called "Lee County Cooking Together," which includes recipes representing the various different cultural backgrounds of people living in the area.

Eventually, however, the Dunbar Shopping Center overshadowed the other activities that emerged from LCPT. Participants in many of the circles were concerned about the lack of supermarkets in the low-income neighborhoods of Fort Myers. As in many other communities, people of color found themselves without easy access to basic services. LCPT created an action committee to explore the possibility of a new shopping center. The committee was able to call public attention to the idea, and asked the board of LCPT to help them make it happen. As president of the board, Jacobi convened a meeting of various people interested in the idea – including city and county officials and a minority business development corporation called LEEDCO. Apparently, LEEDCO had received local and federal grants for economic development in Fort Myers, but hadn't spent the money due to conflict with local government. In fact, some of these funds were time-limited, and "millions would walk away" if the two groups couldn't agree fast. LCPT was able to get everyone in the group to see the larger priorities. "Once we had them in the room," Jacobi said, "it was easy to reach consensus."

The groundbreaking for the Dunbar Shopping Center took place on November 23rd, 1999. Wayne Robinson, Fritz Jacobi, and Annie Estlund were all there, shovels in hand. Of course, the shovels were purely ceremonial - the LCPT members only scratched the earth long enough to get their pictures taken for the News-Press article. They had done enough already.

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