Joseph Cranney , firstname.lastname@example.org; 239-213-6035
When well-known Naples philanthropist Eva Sugden Gomez saw the proposed design for the city's Baker Park in 2014, she was struck by the concept to connect the park to the Gordon River Greenway with a bridge.
“I just love the idea of the bridge going across the waterway," she said. "That did touch my heart.”
Gomez liked the idea so much that she agreed to be a major donor for the park. She gave the city $500,000 in February 2015. In exchange, she was promised naming rights to the Gordon River Bridge, records show.
However, Gomez wasn't mentioned at the Naples City Council meeting last week when Mayor Bill Barnett announced a new agreement to give naming rights for the bridge to another donor.
That's because the city negotiated the $2 million pledge from the family of late Naples philanthropist Dorothy Blair for naming rights to the bridge, unaware of the previous commitment to Gomez.
Naples leaders realized the error after the Naples Daily News asked questions about Gomez's donation. Dana Souza, director of the city's community services department, said he met with Gomez on Friday and apologized.
"It was a terrible mistake on my part," Souza said.
Gomez didn't know there was an issue until she was contacted by the Daily News.
“That makes me feel not nice,” she said. “That’s not nice at all.”
Gomez had considered asking the city for her money back, but she committed to keeping her money in the park, Souza said.
“If we work something out, it’s acceptable,” Gomez told the Daily News. “I just don’t want to get into a big hassle.”
Gomez agreed to her Baker Park donation several years ago based on a request from former Mayor John Sorey, she said.
“He asked for my money for the naming of the bridge,” Gomez said. “And I said OK.”
However, Barnett announced the pledge from the Blair family without mentioning Gomez.
“They’re giving us $2 million for naming rights of that bridge, which is awesome,” he said during the May 3 council meeting. “It was really a great, big thing for us.”
The $16 million cost of the park, once expected to be paid for largely through private donations, will be nearly entirely covered by the city's taxpayers.
Barnett said in an interview he wasn’t aware that Gomez already was promised the naming rights.
“I don’t know Mrs. Gomez or the agreement she made with Sorey,” he said. “I know for a fact that the Blairs specifically asked us — they were really interested in that bridge.”
The records from Gomez’s donation can be found in the city’s own Baker Park file.
To satisfy her pledge, Gomez transferred 9,400 shares of General Mills stock into the city’s bank account Feb. 19, 2015, the records show. She also included a message she wanted to be inscribed on a plaque at the future Sugden Gomez bridge: “Please enjoy and be thankful for the beauty of nature.”
The bridge across the Gordon River has long been the key feature of the waterfront Baker Park that the city has been trying to build for years.
Gomez’s $500,000 for the bridge is a large chunk of the roughly $2.8 million the city has collected in private donations for the park.
The city had planned on private fundraising for much of the park’s costs, but several donors pulled out as the park design changed.
Already, the city has returned $1.1 million to donors who gave money for park features that later were deleted from the plans.