All over the country, flags are unfurling, the national anthem is being sung to summer skies and high-spirited parades of red, white and blue stride down Main Street USA while high school bands blare their toe-tapping marches. School-free children frolic in the sun and cheer on the baton twirlers. Boats in the harbor gleam with just-washed sails and polished decks; tall ships pull into port to take part in the picturesque festivities.
Happy Fourth of July to everyone from lovely Punta Gorda, Fla.!
This scenic harbor-fronted city of 16,641, according to the 2010 census, takes great pride in its patriotism, thanks to the restoring efforts of TEAM Punta Gorda and the local citizens that are dedicated to keeping their area looking beautiful.
The only incorporated municipality in Charlotte County, Punta Gorda had a lot to overcome in 2004 when that bad boy Hurricane Charley unleashed his wrath on the beleaguered town.
Nancy Johnson, CEO of TEAM Punta Gorda, recalls the destruction well.
“After Charley, local government appropriately had its hands full with public safety, infrastructure and residents’ needs,” said Johnson. “A group of citizens was concerned about the vision for the town’s recovery and very quickly raised more than $250,000 in just four months to hire noted design firm Jaime Correa & Associates to lead the town in developing a vision for the future.
“It is called the 2005 Citizens Master Plan and was adopted by the city as a guiding document for the recovery and beyond. TEAM Punta Gorda, a 501c3 nonprofit, was formed from this effort and continues to this day to protect and implement the vision. Such areas as preserving our beautiful waterfront, valuing our historic district and building a healthy downtown without sacrificing our community personality are issues we continue to be committed to.”
More than a decade later, the group is still hard at work, although its focus has shifted from recovery to community development, said Johnson, who enjoys building partnerships and getting things done.
“TEAM PG works in three major areas: community advocacy, community projects and community service. In addition to monitoring and supporting the careful development of our community, we are especially proud of our service projects. An example would be the Paint Your Heart Out Punta Gorda project, in partnership with Charlotte Habitat for Humanity. Each year 150 volunteers paint eight homes in one day for needy homeowners who need a helping hand. The heart of TEAM PG is its collaboration with the many fine organizations and businesses in this town. We are much stronger when we work together.
She added, “The engine of TEAM is its volunteers – 700 in 2016. Of these, some like to participate only once a year for our service projects or special events. There is a core of 300 volunteers who work on our 20 committees all year-round.”
According to Mitchell Austin, AICP, CNU-A, an urban planner/bicycle and pedestrian coordinator in Punta Gorda, the Fourth of July is one of the largest celebrations in the town. The Punta Gorda fireworks are even 100 percent funded by sponsors and donations; no municipal monies are used.
“Our 4th Fest is spearheaded by the Smuggler’s Event Management LLC and is a community-sponsored at Laishley Park that does not receive any taxpayer funds directly from the city of Punta Gorda,” said Austin. “The event begins at 11 a.m. with vendors, displays, waterslides — more than a dozen — and live music all day. Of course the grand finale is a spectacular fireworks display at 9 p.m. over the waters of beautiful Charlotte Harbor.
“Another unique aspect of our Fourth of July in Punta Gorda is the annual Freedom Swim. This is an informal event that was begun many years ago by some local freedom seekers who decided to swim, well, more float with the current, across the harbor from the northern side of the US 42 bridge southwest to Fishermen’s Village. The time of the Freedom Swim is dependent on the tidal conditions for that date in 2017.”
Also, said Austin, the city had very recently completed an award-winning project at Veterans Park and authorized engineering and construction documents for a phase II project to complete renovations at Veterans Park. The phase I work was to construct the Southwest Florida Vietnam Memorial Wall. This project was a collaboration of a constellation of veterans groups in the area, the state of Florida and the city.
Asked what he personally liked best about Punta Gorda’s Fourth of July event, Austin said the greatest part for him was that “it happens on the harbor.” He noted, “Growing up in landlocked Atlanta, Ga., I always marveled at video and photos of fireworks in cities that host the displays over water. It just doubles the excitement of the fireworks in the air with the reflection in the rippled surface of Charlotte Harbor.
“The location also provides the opportunity to view the fireworks from different vantage points along the shore, walking across the bridge, from a small private gathering at a waterfront condo, from a rooftop bar or from the best spot — the event lawn at Laishley Park.”
Austin added, “Today, there are times when folks talking to me about planning or something completely random will say how great the city looks now compared to post-Charley days. I just smile and say, ‘Yes, it does, doesn’t it?’”