Gina Downs: the do-good wolf in sheep's clothing
officially on Monday morning at the corner of U.S. 41 and Woods Edge Parkway in North Naples, Gina Downs was there with representatives from Collier County and the Florida Department of Transportation to watch.
Gina Downs "This is why the Citizen Transportation Coalition was formed," Ms. Downs says about the light. "It's taken us three years."
It's not a light born into happy, wellplanned urban circumstances, but it's a light that will help guarantee the safety of future drivers. That won't help the grandfather and grandson who were killed at the intersection in a car accident several years ago. It might help somebody else however.
State officials dragged their feet when horrified neighbors in District 2 sought changes on the road to prevent further tragedies, Ms. Downs says, and that was probably a mistake.
At the time, she was president of the condominium association in the Villages of Emerald Bay in North Naples, where she lives with her husband, Art Shanklin, a retired pharmaceutical salesman. After the deadly accident, Ms. Downs and others in the neighborhood formed the CTC. A ferocious and energetic community activist disguised as an affable, bespectacled, 53-year-old retiree, she's been a key leader this year in the coalition's efforts to halt a state plan celebrated by the governor and championed by FDOT to turn Alligator Alley over to private interests.
"The fundamental principle goes back to this: It's a public asset," Ms. Downs explains of her highly effective, wellorganized opposition to the plan. "Our grandparents and parents all paid the price for these assets, and they're ours. I owe it to my children and grandchildren to protect them."
The state plan would have allowed a private company to manage the Alley for 50 years, paying some millions up front to the state and to Collier and Broward counties in return for a guarantee of many more millions from tolls collected down the pike.
Apologists, including FDOT officials for whom Ms. Downs says she has great respect, believe private companies could run the Alley much more efficiently, an argument Ms. Downs find specious.
"My answer to that is, if your government isn't doing it efficiently, MAKE them do it efficiently. All (the Alley) is, is an investment opportunity. These people are not altruistic." (Six potential bidders, representing international corporations, expressed interest last year and early this year, but withdrew tentative bids in May after a public outcry and in the face of a faltering economy).
"You can clean up your government, in other words," she adds — which is exactly what Ms. Downs was doing one morning last week.
She also sits on Collier County's Pro- ductivity Committee as one of nearly a dozen savvy citizen members who meet with county department heads and then hash out their budgets with them. "We might say, 'OK, you're furloughing four hours, what if it was eight? And can you avoid replacing your fleet this year?'"
And she also serves on the board of the nonprofit organization called H.O.M.E. — Housing Opportunities Made for Everyone. "We buy foreclosed homes, rehab them and sell them as affordable housing to qualified people. We've done 13 so far," she says about the program that's a unique partnership of government, consortium banks, businesses, private individuals and the construction trades.
If it all sounds like a life of numbers, it is and it isn't. Ms. Downs grew up in western Maryland and earned a degree in economics from Shippensburg University. "I love crunching numbers," she says. "Give me some statistics, let me crunch them. I'm always reading all kinds of government documents — BEBR reports, for example, from the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida. It's all statistics. I just love it.
"Right now I'm reading 'Managing Community Growth.' "It's riveting."
On the other hand, Ms. Downs spent 10 years worth of summers wearing a tool belt and working with her best friend in Maryland, a carpenter who taught her how to build just about anything from a deck addition to a whole house.
And when her parents became ill, she left her career and went home "to help see them out of this world, since they saw me into it. It's the thing I'm proudest of in my life."
She arrived in Naples only accidentally, and not because of numbers or statistics.
She came here for the first time to visit friends, after breaking her toes and crushing part of her foot in a skiing accident in Colorado. "We just loved it," she says about the area. "We bought a place, and first we came for three months, then for four months, then for six months — and now I don't ever want to leave again."
That might be an unlucky thing for those who champion fat budgets or try to sell public assets, but it's proven extremely fortunate for the rest of us.