- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 7, 2015

ESTERO, Fla. (AP) - It’s a Friday night and rock band Sobrevivencia is performing in a gazebo on land local Mayans use for ceremonies.

The band wears T-shirts, jeans and sneakers, except for lead singer Xulen Ortiz. His feet are bare.

Most of the audience is Guatemalan, like the performers. They are sheltered by tree canopies in the Happehatchee Center, an almost-five acre property in front of a busy strip mall in the sprawling village of Estero.

Happehatchee means “happy river,” it has been said.

These people look happy. They understand the lyrics, which are in Mayan languages, such as Mam and Achi, and in Spanish. They record the band with cellphones and cameras. They dance in a circle.

Sobrevivencia, which means “survival,” has a sound that fuses folk and pop, dominated by a waist-tall carved marimba of wood that two, sometimes three, men strike with mallets. The music is accented by a guitar plugged into an amp and by a drum that has an empty turtle shell hanging from it.

The turtle shell is not a prop. It is part of the percussion.

Between songs, Ortiz says he is thankful - for the moment, for the people in the gazebo, for the like-mindedness that brought everyone together.

And for Happehatchee.

“These parks are so beautiful, that we have to thank the energy people put in to preserve Mother Earth,” Ortiz says in Spanish.

At Happehatchee, crooked oak tree branches - wrapped in vines and cascading Spanish moss - reach toward leaf-strewn earth that, according to lore, Calusa Indians once walked.

Clusters of emerald green bamboo clang when wind sways stalks into one another. The religious Koreshans, 19th Century pioneers who believed Estero was the center of the universe, are said to have planted the bamboo.

In 1972, Ellen Peterson bought the stretch of woods, which flank both banks of the serpentine Estero River. She agreed to a sale price of $35,000.

Peterson, a widow with two college degrees, gave the place its name. It was her tribute to American Indian culture.

Peterson - so enamored with wild Florida and so staunch about its survival that she was arrested for civil disobedience during protests - decided to open Happehatchee to the public.

People came to her home every day. Guests hosted drum circles. Peterson officiated weddings. Yoga instructors held classes. Mayan priests carried out sacred rituals.

Peterson and some of her closest friends formed a nonprofit in 2006. Happehatchee is an eco-spiritual center, a place to find healing in nature.

“It brings everyone together,” said Genelle Grant, president of the Happehatchee board of directors.

Five years after creating the nonprofit, in October 2011, Peterson died in her bed at age 87.

“As what happens with every family when the mother or the matriarch passes away, there was a lot of confusion,” Grant said.

Happehatchee closed in May 2012. Then came the protests.

Bobbie Lee Davenport, a yoga instructor, claimed the board of directors was going against Peterson’s wishes.

“She wanted it more accessible to the public,” Davenport said. “There was a big rift.”

Davenport resigned from the board and publicly denounced its remaining members.

Grant, who said Peterson asked her to take over, said it got ugly and un-Ellen like at Happehatchee during the pickets.

“We had a lot of bad press. We had a lot of enemies. There was a lot of arguing about who would run the place,” Grant said. “It was very hard.”

Lee County code enforcement officers cited Happehatchee in August 2012 for operating as an eco-spirituality center without a permit.

The board spent about a year revamping Happehatchee to meet the county’s business requirements.

That took more than paint. Wiring had to be repaired and brought up to code. The center needed a fire alarm system.

Happehatchee widened its access driveway from Corkscrew Road and added a bathroom to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It now has parking accessible to the disabled.

Lee County granted the center a certificate of compliance in July 2013. Happehatchee could open again.

“A lot of people said we wouldn’t,” Grant said.

It takes about $5,000 a month to operate Happehatchee, which is about $60,000 a year.

Happehatchee rents out the gazebo, known as the Peace Pavilion, where Sobrevivencia performed. The living room of the Girl Scout House, a one-story bungalow, can be borrowed for up to eight hours at a time.

The center accepts donations and gifts. A recent fundraiser with renowned wilderness photographer Clyde Butcher, a friend of Peterson’s, was a notable success, Grant said.

Happehatchee itself is valuable, but Grant said no one on the board intends to make money off of it.

Next door, 87 acres that stretch north from Corkscrew Road and U.S. 41 are for sale. The asking price is $34 million.

That makes the center vulnerable, particularly if a developer moves in, both Davenport and Grant said.

“That would really ruin the place,” Davenport said. “It would ruin the ambiance.”

Estero became a village this year and residents are craving identity. People are talking about creating a downtown.

The red polygon on the map that defines a proposed core for Estero’s downtown encompasses Happehatchee and the land for sale beside it. A real estate listing for the 87 acres around the oasis includes a rendering of the site with roads and Mediterranean-style buildings.

Clearing “old, primal woods” to build another box store or housing development would be a worst-case scenario, said Grant. She envisions someone making the land into a park.

“We are hoping for a miracle,” Grant said. “We’re spreading out and asking people to have that vision, to save those trees and save that corner.”

___

Information from: Naples (Fla.) Daily News, https://www.naplesnews.com

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