Rodney Atkins performing at Island Hopper Songwriter Fest's closing show poolside at Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina
Known informally as “the Mayor of Downtown Fort Myers,” Lisa Sbuttoni, the executive director of the River District Alliance nonprofit that promotes the historic downtown of the Southwest Florida tourist destination in between Sarasota and Naples, had plenty to show an out-of-town visitor she’d just met on First Street last Friday (Sept. 27).
The visitor was in town for the sixth annual Island Hopper Songwriter Fest, a 10-day affair staged on The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel Island that began Sept. 20 and ended Sept. 29. The festival took place at venues in Downtown Fort Myers, Fort Myers Beach and Captiva Island, and offered 120 showcases featuring 93 songwriters. And while it drew thousands of music fans to the mostly free performances, it also provided an opportunity for attendees to discover the other attractions of Fort Myers and all of Lee County, of which Fort Myers is county seat.
“People think of this area and they think of our beautiful beaches—and they certainly are!” boasted Sbuttoni. “But we also have a great downtown area of restaurants and architecture, an unexpected treasure in the phenomenal Sidney & Berne Davis Arts Center, an ‘art walk’ on the first Friday of the month, and a ‘music walk’ on the third Friday of the month. Compared with Sarasota and Naples, it’s a different, more cutting-edge vibe.”
The Island Hopper Songwriter Fest likewise has a different vibe than other Florida music festivals, and by design serves as a magnet both for tourism and for music fans seeking scenic and intimate performance settings.
“We looked at the venerable 24-year-old Key West Songwriters Festival—and liked their mostly-free model and local element,” said Nancy MacPhee, product development manager for the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau (VCB), at Island Hopper 2019’s concluding Pink Shell Pool Party event Sunday featuring country star Rodney Atkins alongside the Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina’s big swimming pool.
“There’s also the Tortuga Music Festival in Fort Lauderdale, which features big, big acts in fenced-off areas on the beach. But we have turtle season now and are very careful about our beaches and protecting the resources that people come here year-round to enjoy—and certainly don’t want to do anything to threaten it.”
The VCB, then, represents not only Lee County’s hotel business interests but the natural environment that fuels the tourism that fills the rooms.
“We’ve always been a big destination for people who seek that environment,” continued MacPhee, citing a top Fort Myers tourist attraction, The Edison and Ford Winter Estates, which date from 1885, when Thomas Edison first visited Southwest Florida and purchased land to build a vacation home/winter retreat.
Edison had discovered the vicinity’s wealth of outdoor activities including swimming, boating, shelling and fishing—and hosted friends like automobile magnate Henry Ford, who bought the property next door. More recently, noted MacPhee, luminaries including Randy Wayne White, author of the popular Doc Ford crime novel series, has taken up residence on Pine Island in Lee County.
But the expanding Island Hopper Songwriter Fest is itself evidence of the region’s growing appeal for tourists and locals alike.
“The first year, the festival was held on two successive weekends, and had 50 songwriters,” recalled MacPhee. “The second year bridged the gap between the weekends by opening up the downtown district. But we didn’t want to create anything artificial: We have incredible participants in [co-producers] BMI, iHeartMedia and [country radio station WCKT] Cat Country 107.1, and lodging partners that donate empty rooms for songwriters--and have conceived an organic and immersive experience for the last two weeks of September, which is our slowest time of year.”
By the third year, MacPhee noted, “something really special was happening.”
“The big hotels were totally full,” she said, noting that attendee turnout, which had totaled between 5,000 and 6,000 the first year, grew to 14,000 last year, with an anticipated increase this year of an additional 3,000 to 4,000 songwriter fans.
“We’re bumping the needle in tourist tax revenue each year—which is good,” MacPhee added. “We offer an opportunity to create a unique vacation, and people are coming to stay and are moving to the islands and Downtown Fort Myers.”
This year even locals were booking rooms, said MacPhee, instead of driving to and from Captiva, which is a 40-minute trip due to reduced speed zones for wildlife crossings. As for the songwriters, “We thought how our destination inspires them: We’ve heard stories that songwriters have written hit songs while they were here, and have seen some come and spend three or four days hanging on the beach and writing songs about Fort Myers or Captiva—which we wanted to have happen.”
According to legend, of course, this has happened, what with claims that Jimmy Buffett penned his 1978 hit “Cheeseburger in Paradise” at Cabbage Key, an island a short boat ride from Fort Myers. Fast-forwarding to 2019, when all the locations of the Island Hopper Songwriters Fest are accessible by boat, MacPhee noted that some performing songwriters were new to the festival this year—and some were veterans who have come back every year after “falling in love” with the fest.
“There are a couple of ticketed label act shows to heighten the excitement,” she said, pointing to Gone West, the Nashville-based band made up of Colbie Caillat, Jason Reeves, Justin Kawika Young and Nelly Joy, which played at Pinchers at the Marina at Edison Ford along with fellow Nashville label singer-songwriter Ryan Hurd. Another ticketed show was a festival first: Kristian Bush of Sugarland, performing with the Gulf Coast Symphony at the Florida Repertory Theatre in Downtown Fort Myers.
Bush had performed solo twice before at the Island Hopper Fest. Meanwhile, the all-volunteer Gulf Coast Symphony orchestra wanted to be part of the festival and reach a different audience. An artistic teaming with Bush provided the perfect fit, but in order to make it happen, someone was needed to quickly create charts for the orchestra. Luckily, Bush’s brother Brandon, who is a member of his new band Dark Water, did the trick, and the concert experience was so enjoyable for Bush that he wants to duplicate it in the future.
Atkins’ ticketed festival-closer at Pink Shell Resort drew an estimated 1,600 people poolside, not counting beachcombers and maybe half-a-dozen boats bobbing to the music just offshore. And while the crowd may have been big and boisterous, it also did in fact live up to the goal of the Island Hopper Songwriter Fest as stated by MacPhee: present people with an intimate and unforgettable music experience.
And with six successful Island Hoppers now in the books, the festival may now broaden its country music focus to include more pop music genres in the future, concluded MacPhee.