By Meg Daradanova
The monthly meeting of the Estero Council of Community Leaders is a lively affair: the large room is abuzz with conversation. Some attendees have the easy camaraderie that only comes with longtime working relationships. But these days, there are more new faces; the ECCL is expanding and bringing more people and organizations on board.
This unique community organization has been tackling local issues for the past 17 years. It is a rare type of institution in that it’s not only entirely volunteer-run, but also works in concert with the Village of Estero government to improve the quality of life in the area. The ECCL organized the movement to incorporate Estero and gave the Village its first council members.
“ECCL is a non-partisan, civic advocacy organization,” explains Barry Freedman, ECCL Chief Membership Development Director. “Its purpose is to inform, educate and enable residents to act, to maintain and improve the quality of life in greater Estero.”
Currently, the ECCL is a network of 43 communities and organizations, representing over 30,000 residents of Estero and beyond, plus more than 1,100 local businesses. And they’re growing.
“The organization’s main goal,” says Jim Gilmartin, president and chief communications officer, “is to be the voice of the people in challenges and opportunities that concern the quality of life of local communities.”
Established in 2002 and led by Don Eslick, the ECCL has always had an eye on the future of Estero, mainly keeping its growth and development smart and sustainable. At the beginning of 2019, Eslick — known to many as “Mr. Estero” — announced he would be retiring as chairman of the board. The ECCL leadership saw this as an opportunity to make the organization itself growth-proof by installing a structure to successfully see it into the coming decades.
“We had to come up with an organizational structure to replace Don, who was a one-man band,” says Gilmartin. Previously, the ECCL had a board with a chairperson for each special committee, such as transportation and community development. With the restructuring, the board has become a supporting body to the president and his executive team.
“They are local people who want to deliver something to their community,” says Gilmartin.
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The monthly membership meeting is in full swing, with reports from the Village Council and the Estero Chamber of Commerce, Lee Health and Conservation 20/20. The next report on the agenda, however, presents a new issue: a local citizen group sounds the alert of a planned waste transfer station that will leak directly into the Estero River, threatening the quality of our water and local wildlife.
What will the ECCL do to address this issue? Says Jim Gilmartin: “This is where the rubber meets the road”…or, where the Advocacy Councils take over.
The seven Advocacy Councils (Transportation, Community Development, Environment, Health, Education, and Arts and Entertainment) are where direct community impact occurs. Each council deals with concrete projects or problems faced by the community. Estero is rich in talent, and, true to form, the Advocacy Council chairs are highly accomplished and motivated volunteers whose careers and interests intersect with the needs of the community.
The case presented at the meeting is in Derrick Botana’s wheelhouse. Botana, executive vice president of Bay Water Boat Rentals, chairs the Environmental Council and cares deeply about issues that concern our land and waters.
“One of our main goals is to educate the public and make them aware of the environmental issues facing southern Lee County,” says Botana. “The county is losing over 10 acres of natural land to development every day.” He adds that one of his hopes is to make the Village of Estero the first municipality in the Gulf region with a completely eco-friendly and ocean-safe bay.
For Mark Novitzki, heading the Arts and Entertainment Council is a chance to gauge interest in future amenities like a community theater, an arts and crafts venue, and up to eight sports fields intended for youth sports, as well as hosting tournaments.
“The council wants to get people out of their individual developments and into the greater community,” says Novitzki. “We want Estero residents to be proud stewards of the arts, entertainment, sports and recreation.”
Novitzki, like Gilmartin, wears two hats in the organization, acting also as its chief operating officer. His task is to provide all necessary support to the councils, to get the word out about their efforts, and to channel information through the president to the board.
“Our job as an executive team is to support the Advocacy Councils,” explains President Gilmartin. “We can provide coaching and stay constantly in communication, but, essentially, they are out there looking for solutions with their teams, and we are here to help them.”
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How will the ECCL will start handling the issue of the waste treatment facility raised at the meeting? The Environmental Advocacy Council will meet with the concerned citizens, study the issue and outline a course of action.
“Then, together with the COO, they’ll come up with a strategy that will include a lot of communication about the problem — informing the public about it and giving people a recourse,” says Gilmartin.
The waste facility is just one of dozens of issues the ECCL is juggling at any given time. Although the ECCL is volunteer-run, some initiatives cost money, such as hiring qualified consultants to conduct studies or paying for lawsuits when deemed necessary. As the ECCL grows, so must its support base.
The ECCL has traditionally relied upon membership fees, and continues to do so; however, it has become clear that wider financial support will be needed to increase the organization’s communications and operational capacities.
The Advocacy Foundation, established in 2019, is expected to bring direct donations that will enable the ECCL to not only support its day-to-day operations, but also to provide support, in the form of grants, to local organizations and future projects. And the future points to growth. Some communities outside of Estero, which want to have a say in important regional issues, have opted to join the ECCL.
“Our advocacy priorities affect all of south Lee County,” says Development Director Freedman. “No other adjacent city or unincorporated community has the kind of organization ECCL has that can help address the issues that all surrounding communities are affected by, like water quality, transportation and sprawling development.”
To learn more about the ECCL and find out how to get involved, visit esterotoday.com.