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Issue 686

04/03/2014 at 3:49pm

Sunset CelebrationCelebrating the Sunset - Fort Myers Beach Style

Those who haven't been down to Time Square lately are missing out on one of the island's best kept secrets. The weekend Sunset Celebrations that began in December of 2011 as a way to attract people to the businesses there have evolved into Fort Myers Beach's own unique way to observe the end of the day, as folks come from miles around to draw up a chair, listen to some great music and enjoy each other's company during the balmy tropical sunset.

"This all started back in the summer of 2011, when we had a bunch of characters in the Square who didn't contribute a whole lot to business," said Pete's Time Out owner John Lallo, one of the original organizers of the celebrations who continues to work hard each weekend, booking all the bands and tearing down the tent each Friday and Saturday night when the performers are done. "Business was down, it was off-season, and these guys were out there yelling at the tourists we did have if they didn't tip. So me and Steve Maillakakis from Plaka sat down and figured out we could pull permits to have bands in the Square."

Lallo and Maillakakis were joined by Tomas List from La Ola, John and Deanna Citrola from Citrola's, Dave and Tina Eichen from Dairy Queen and Steve Lasay from Holiday Court Hotel, who all began paying weekly for individual special events permits.

"This was a nightmare because one of us had to go to City Hall every week and get all those forms signed, praying that we'd get the permit by Thursday because we'd already booked the bands," Lallo told us. "That's not a good way to do business."

Despite this, the group continued the practice from December of 2011 until June of 2012, when they went to the Town and asked them to consider issuing a recurring permit for events that remained the same week after week.

"We met with (then) Town Manager Terry Stewart and discussed it, and Council approved it, so we were the first ones to receive this type of permit," John said. "Over time, there's been a lot of people donating to this but there are six of us - Pete's Time Out, Plaka, Dairy Queen, Kilwin's, Citrola's and Holiday Court - that pitch in to pay for the bands, renting the stage from Bay Oaks, the tent, all the expenses of keeping this thing going. We also formed a new Time Square Merchants and Events Association, which is a 501-c6 - kind of like a Chamber of Commerce. But even though we're officially a for-profit organization, we rarely actually make a profit."

Lallo says that what was originally designed as a way to draw people to Time Square businesses has evolved into a celebration that is uniquely Fort Myers Beach.

"This is so much more now," he said. "People bring their lawn chairs and enjoy the music and sunset and don't spend one dime, and that's great because it's come to be a community-like thing, individual to this island."

Of all the bands that have played at the Sunset Celebration - which is held every Friday and Saturday from 5-10pm - Lallo says it is High Tide who is their signature band, playing nearly every Friday night.

"These guys have played in rain, storm and wind," he said. "The leader, Scott Novello, has literally been through a bunch of different band members and never missed a gig. They are the perfect band for what we do, that's why I offer them to pick whichever dates they want when I make the schedule every four months. Besides them, I have about 5 bands that I use because they are consistent and everyone likes them."

The celebrations have caused some changes for the businesses - Plaka now stays open later and Pete's has a new bar - and Lallo says they are always looking for sponsors to help with the costs, but the changes have been happy ones as more and more people discover our gem of a downtown area.

And the best part? Not one complaint in 2 1/2 years.

"I always patrol the area to make sure no one has an open container where they shouldn't and that everyone gets along, and we have had no problems," Lallo said. "This was an awesome idea and we plan to keep it exactly as it is. For me, the best part is looking out and seeing all the kids dancing to the music - everyone has such a good time."

Keri Hendry Weeg