Ian's aftermath: Why is Lakes Park in Fort Myers still closed? What we know
The day is coming soon when residents, snowbirds and tourists can return to and enjoy what is considered one of Lee County's most popular parks.
How soon, or more specifically, the actual date Lakes Park in Fort Myers will open for public access again has not been decided.
According to a Lee County spokesperson, Lakes Park is expected to reopen to the public in January, although not all amenities, such as playgrounds and splash pads at the water park, will be restored at that time.
Despite not having clarity yet on a date when the gates will no longer be locked, some people associated with the park's programs and offerings are being patient and understand why it remains closed.
Lakes Park is as a staging area for recovery agencies and has been since soon after Sept. 28 when Hurricane Ian, a powerful and deadly Category 4 hurricane, slammed into Southwest Florida. With space needed for emergency personnel and their equipment and other needs, Lee County has provided places like Lakes Park, which is 279 acres and features a 158-acre freshwater quarry lake, for staging.
Another example is the Lee County Sports Complex, which is still being used as a staging area for Ian recovery. According to Lee County, recovery crews are expected to leave the complex later this month
For people recently returning to the area and who have made regular visits to Lakes Park and all it has to offer, from its walking, jogging and bike paths to its playgrounds and gardens and, of course, the annual holiday train ride that is a tradition for many families, it might come as a surprise and be frustrating to see the park closed.
Barbara Manzo, the president of the Lakes Park Enrichment Foundation, which is a group of volunteers who support the park in numerous ways, had to go on social media recently to address rumors about the reason Lakes Park remains closed.
Some people on the Nextdoor app were claiming the park was closed because of contamination and debris.
"Lakes Park for Lee County is basically our Central Park," said Manzo, referring to the famous park in New York City. "It's a shame because we know a lot of people use the park for Christmas."
But only miles from Lakes Park on Fort Myers Beach, people have lost their home and all of their possessions. More than 60 people in Lee County were killed by the storm. Other places in the region like Sanibel Island, Pine Island and parts of Cape Coral were also hit.
Everyone is willing to sacrifice something right now and people like Manzo are happy to do it.
"We understand all of this ... what's going on," said Manzo, who is a retired Lee County parks and recreation employee. "There is a need for this."
In the meantime, people on the enrichment foundation board and other volunteers have been doing what they can behind-the-scenes to be ready for when the park eventually reopens.
One of those people is Kathy Busick, who is the secretary for the enrichment foundation board. She also oversees the park's three gardens -- the children's garden, the fragrance garden and the community garden. She's looking forward to getting back inside to help with continued efforts to restore the gardens.
"These are difficult times," Busick said. "We had a Category 5 hurricane come through. All the things we want to do we will do again."
Manzo and Busick were both able to go into the park shortly after Ian hit to assess damage. During the tour, Manzo said she was able to see up close the scope of the FEMA resources that have ascended on the park. She said the fabric roofs on the children's playground were damaged. Also, pumps used to operate the water playgrounds were destroyed by flooding.
"I was really impressed with the way they (FEMA) set up for all of these people coming from out of town," Manzo said. "They have a place to eat, to sleep and to even wash their clothes."
The seasonal Lakes Park Farmer's Market (October-April) was forced to temporarily move to a new location. Manzo said there is a location on U.S. 41 set up for the market, but few people are going to it. The lot is on the west side of U.S. 41 across from ta Restaurant Supply Warehouse.
Manzo does have one ask regarding the future and how Lee County might be able to have different options when it comes to recovery support and where to locate it in the future if a storm hits. Along with the Lakes Park Enrichment Foundation she is the chair for
Chair of the eYes on Conservation 2020 Coalition. The group met last Friday and one item on the agenda was the County useing parks and conservation land for debris storage and FEMA operations that in some cases has long term detrimental effects on the property.
Manzo said the Lee County Board of Commissioners had a workshop this week where they discussed a task force to address future storms and dealing with the aftermath.
"We can’t keep using conservation lands to dump debris on," Manzo said. "Should we use park lands? Should we keep people out of the parks to put emergency workers in it? It is a sensitive conversation. What point do they decide to get some land and set it aside for something like this in the future?"
Lakes Park: Did you know?
Lakes Park began as a man-made area where rock was quarried during the 1960s.
The depth varies from a few inches to more than 20 feet.
Lee County bought it in 1978.
In 1982, ground was broken and it was developed for recreational use with the official “Grand Opening” on April 21, 1984.
Park amenities include picnic shelters, a lodge, garden gazebo, amphitheater, pedestrian and cycling trails, outdoor fitness equipment, splash pad water features, playgrounds, sand volleyball courts, bicycle and boat rentals, miniature train rides, a fragrance garden, community garden, nature observation, fishing, summer camp and special events.
More Lee parks info
Lee County created a landing page for park patrons to better understand what’s open, what’s partially open and what’s closed. It’s a GIS map with information. You can find it at www.leeparks.org. Look for Hurricane Ian Parks Progress Map.
This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Hurricane Ian: Lakes Park in Fort Myers scheduled to reopen in January