provided to The Santiva Chronicle
A heart-shaped sculpture layered with shells and an original mural painting will mark a milestone for the Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce this year. The two art installations in the Francis P. Bailey, Jr., Chamber Visitor Center at 1159 Causeway Road on Sanibel Islands honor the chamber’s 60th anniversary celebration.
“It has been a big year already for the chamber,” said John Lai, chamber president and chief executive officer. “We officially celebrated past years’ accomplishments on April 20 with a special annual meeting – the first full membership meeting since pre-COVID. Now, these two extraordinary art installations celebrate and commemorate the spirit of the islands in a very real and creative way.”
Earlier this year, Lai worked with local artist Ginny Dickinson as she completed a six-foot, shell-covered heart sculpture that would go on display at the 85th annual Sanibel Shell Festival in March. She agreed to exhibit the sculpture in the visitor center after the festival, and it now holds a place of honor behind the front desk.
“I was so happy this heart could stay a little longer on the island,” said Dickinson. “My hope is that all who view it are intrigued by the beauty of the shells, find their favorite shells, and share a smile as they walk away.”
When the visitor center underwent its total makeover in 2018, the chamber incorporated a floor-to-ceiling, vintage-style mural painted by local artist Pam Brodersen. It featured an antique map, island hot spots, and local wildlife celebs such as dolphins and roseate spoonbills and quickly became a popular spot for visitor selfies.
For its 60th, the chamber decided it was time for a new, fresh look. Island artist Rachel Pierce, who recently opened a gallery on Periwinkle Way, volunteered to create a new mural that she will install mid-June.
“This is such an opportunity for me, especially with the popularity of the chamber of commerce,” said Pierce. “It’s where our island visitors — hundreds of thousands — first stop to get the inside scoop on the islands’ happenings, businesses, bike paths, parking, and more. And now MY art will be there for folks to take their picture in front of. Are you kidding me, that’s awesome! I’m working on the large piece now. It’s going to be bright and fun, just like our awesome islands.”
The Sanibel-Captiva chamber formed in 1962, just one year before the Sanibel Causeway opened the islands to the world in a new, welcoming way. A group called the Business Association signed a charter that changed its name. And so, the Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce was born to support the islands’ business community and ready it for a burgeoning tourism trade.
Hugo Lindgren, the developer who started in motion the building of the causeway in the first place, donated the land for a chamber of commerce, ideally situated where the bridge would make landfall on Sanibel Island. Until construction on the building began, a billboard dominated the property, listing the islands’ accommodations under a map of Sanibel and Captiva. The physical chamber office started as a desk in a closet-like space at The Community House.
The then one-story chamber building was completed in 1965, confirmed by a headline in the Islander newspaper on July 16 proclaiming: “PURPLE PROVOKES PROTESTS.” The article reported that reviews were mixed about the Chamber’s exterior paint job.
“If you haven’t driven on or off the Islands within the last week, you may not know that the new Sanibel Chamber of Commerce building is now painted purple and beigy-pink,” it said.
Islanders today agree that the visitor center’s current colorful paint job and gingerbread trim fit island style perfectly. The building expanded to two floors in the 1980s, the second floor relegated to administrative offices, and by 2008, the chamber added restrooms to the back.
The most impressive upgrade to the visitor center came in 2018. Although the bulk of the improvements lay in new technology that is user-friendly and appealing to the eye, the entire first floor underwent a total strip-down and green redesign.
The front desk was converted from a horseshoe shape to a kiosk-style configuration. In contrast to all that’s ultra-modern within, the décor reflects the islands’ rich history. Wood flooring has an endearingly timeworn look, while painted white boards line the walls for a completely fresh island feel.
“We look forward to keeping the 60th celebration going the rest of the year,” said Lai. “June 1 brings the first chamber-hosted Islands Night as the Bailey family hands over the reins after running the show for almost 30 years. We will end 2022 in grand style with our traditional Luminary Stroll on Dec. 2 and 3. It has been a grand year of accomplishments, and our membership has good reason to be proud.”