Exactly 595 days after Hurricane Ian forever changed the way of doing business on the islands, the SanCap Chamber returned to a traditional annual meeting format with a luncheon at Marriott Sanibel Harbour Resort in Fort Myers on May 15. With the storm still foremost in the minds and daily lives of chamber staff, board, and members, the typical agenda of the year’s highlights, new board members and officers, and award presentations focused on the positive aspects of hurricane recovery.


In addition to the traditional annual awards, Sanibel Mayor Richard Johnson presented state government officials with “Building Block” awards – bricks from the lighthouse structures washed away by Ian. They went to state representatives Adam Botana and Jenna Persons-Mulicka and staff members of Senator Jonathan Martin.


“We won’t ever forget that fateful day that changed our community, but in the words of one of my favorite poets, Jelly Roll, sometimes we need to remind ourselves that the windshield is bigger than the rearview mirror for a reason,” said John Lai, SanCap Chamber president and CEO, as he took the podium to deliver the State of the Chamber report.


He presented statistics and figures demonstrating the setbacks after the storm compared to the ongoing comebacks to this day. He reported a current member census of 414, compared to 22 paying members on Jan. 1, 2023, and that the chamber has cut 1,459 feet of ribbon to welcome back 97 reopened businesses. Currently, the visitor center sees an average of 90 drop-ins a day, he said.


Innovations such as the Wander App, toll-free weekends, open-for-business flags, state grants, and the Restaurant Round Table have bolstered visitations and spirits. More than 45 local businesses received over $1,800,000 in Hospitality Cares Grants.


“This time next year, 2025, we anticipate 50 percent of our lodging units will be back online with another 19 percent by the end of 2025, bringing our total to 69 percent,” Lai said.


He reinforced the chamber’s continued commitment to clean water with the announcement of its Preserving Paradise program, which will immerse business leaders in the state’s connection between ecology and economy. More information for participating in the program is available at preservingparadise.org.


Outgoing board chair Calli Johnson of Bailey’s General Store, who served two years to provide continuity through recovery phases, summed up the island spirit of resiliency: “We may be blown off-course by a hurricane, but we can always find our way home.” She introduced incoming chair JR Ramirez, general manager of Casa Ybel Resort.


“Having worked in this community for almost three decades, I have discovered firsthand how we all come together. I am certain, with the help of everyone in this room, we will continue our collective efforts… and the Sanibel-Captiva Chamber will be there to help throughout your recovery,” Ramirez pledged. He thanked Johnson and Lai for their strong leadership in challenging times, then introduced the 2024-2025 chamber executive board.


Along with past chair Johnson and current chair Ramirez, Katie Forret of Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grill will serve as chair-elect and Michael Nachef of LeeHealth will serve as secretary-treasurer.


New members of the board of directors include Daniel Andrews of Captains for Clean Water, Bill Wellman of The Inns of Sanibel, Evelyn Stewart of Adventures in Paradise Cruises, and Leigh Gevelinger of Coastal Vista. They join incumbent board members Joel Goodman of VIP Realty, Ron Clayton of Waste Management, Mark Blust of Prawnbroker Restaurant Group, David Lowden of Bank of the Islands, Patience Rodriguez of Select Vacations, Robert Monk of Law Office of Robert Monk, and Samantha Wilson of Toys Ahoy.


Ramirez presented the first annual chamber business award of the day, the Sue Rosica Gray Volunteer Award, to Chip Roach, who has served on the board of directors for various island nonprofits, including Sanibel Sea School, SCCF (Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation), and, currently, as chair of Charitable Foundation of the Islands (CFI). Ramirez recognized him as “someone who always has a calm voice, a warm smile, and a helping hand.”


Johnson announced Rosalita’s Cantina as the New Business of the Year Award recipient, quipping: “The team immediately embraced their role as a respite of sorts for our recovering community that needed margaritas and tacos for fuel as we began our rebuild.”


The Business/Organization of the Year Award went to CFI, represented by executive director Dolly Farrell. “This year’s winner is the first organization to win this category, as their engagement with our business community, residential community, nonprofit community, and local government must be recognized as an integral part of our recovery process,” said Ramirez.


City council member Holly Smith presented the prestigious Citizen of the Year Award to Diana Taylor, a local social media marketing specialist.


“I typically say ordinary people doing extraordinary things, but this is no ordinary person.” said Smith. “The person we are celebrating today, since before the storm hit and every day after, has been steadfast and tenacious in her dedication to highlight and promoting the community and businesses of Sanibel and Captiva like no other….You define community spirit, love of our islands…. You have elevated these islands in a way that only you can.”


“What a touching and emotional culmination that was to a truly feel-good celebration of community,” said Lai. “I congratulate all our award winners and each and every business member and island resident who has helped one another make it through these 595 days toward a brighter future.”


Homerun Sponsor for the annual meeting, in conjunction with Islands Night on April 17, was Bank of the Islands. Other sponsors included: Triple Sponsors Bailey’s General Store and Island Store, and Sanibel Captiva Community Bank; Double Sponsors Alliant Property Management, LLC, “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society, Jerry’s Foods of Sanibel, Newport Property Construction, Sanibel Carts, and Whitney’s Bait & Tackle; and Single Sponsors Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille, SCCF, and The Sanibel Captiva Trust Company.



The SanCap Chamber is dedicated to promoting the prosperity of its members and preserving the quality of life of our community. The Chamber plays a key role in facilitating communication and cooperation between business, residents, and government to enhance the economic health of the islands. Its website, sanibel-captiva.org, receives over 1.3 million visits per year. For more information about the chamber, visit sanibel-captiva.org or contact John Lai, president and CEO, at 239-472-2348 or [email protected].