Episode 7: “On Deck” with John Lai of Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce

July 7, 2020

Florida’s economy is tourism-driven. Our tourism is sustained by our natural resources—pristine beaches, beautiful waters, and abundant wildlife. John Lai of Sanibel-Captiva Chamber reminds businesses, “Preserving our economy in Florida means also preserving our ecology. This shouldn’t be an either-or discussion. It’s both-and.

About Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce

For more than 50 years, Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce has been dedicated to fostering the growth and prosperity of the business community, while nurturing the quality of life for all those who live, visit and work on the sanctuary islands.

About “On Deck”

“On Deck” is a short film series sharing the stories of guides and businesses dealing with COVID-19 and the importance of water quality, presented by Captains For Clean Water. Check out more episodes.

Diving Deeper with John Lai

President and CEO, Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce, Sanibel, FL

Q: Tell us a little more about yourself—where youre from, where you are now, and what you do.

A: I was born in Trinidad which is a small island in the Caribbean, but I’ve lived in Southwest Florida for over 35 years. My childhood was spent fishing and recreating in waters of the Caribbean then my family and I moved to Florida when I was just 13 years old. I immediately fell in love with South Florida, really because of the natural beauty of the barrier islands that we work on and live on, and the charm of all the communities and the pristine waters that we were surrounded by. My wife and I met locally and were married here on Sanibel Island. We’ve raised our kids in Southwest Florida and they currently both attend USF and live in St. Petersburg.

Q: Whats your role at the Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce and how long have you been with them?

A: I’ve been with the Chamber now for four years and I’m fortunate enough to have what I consider my dream job as the President and CEO of Sanibel-Captiva Chamber. Our mission here is to promote the prosperity of our members and preserve the quality of life on our islands and that means that I get to work for our business community by promoting our beautiful and unique destination. But it also means that I get to advocate for the conservation and preservation of our natural resources that make this destination so special, not just to visit and recreate on, but also to live and make home as well.

Q: How would you describe Sanibel and Captiva Islands to someone whos never visited?

 A: I’d describe Sanibel and Captiva to a new visitor as Florida the way nature intended it to be. The natural beauty of these islands are really the result of generations of intentional preservation and really strict building codes and restrictions. When someone visits the islands, they experience 17 miles of two-lane roads, no traffic lights, 25 miles of biking, walking trails and no buildings over three stories. But the real crown jewels of Sanibel-Captiva are the award-winning beaches. Nature is plentiful, so birding, fishing and shelling is unmatched.

Q: Sanibel is often referred to as the catchers mittfor Lake Okeechobee discharges. Can you explain what that means and what kinds of impacts you witnessed as a result of the high-volume discharges during the previous water crises?

A: Yes, this really has everything to do with the geographic location of our island as it sits at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee and a curved formation between the river and the Gulf. And therefore, everything that comes down the river, including stormwater runoff and water discharge from Lake Okeechobee, passes around our islands to get to the Gulf. And what this has resulted in, in recent history, is much higher concentrations of algal blooms than if the river just flowed directly into the Gulf of Mexico.

Q: Youve been a leader for the business community in fighting for clean water in Florida. What inspired you to get more involved in the fight and whats your message for other business leaders across Florida?

A: I think that there’s several factors that inspired my engagement in this fight. First is really on a personal level. I have two adult children who I want to see make memories with their families on our waterways, as I did with mine. Secondly, on a professional level. I’ve been involved in tourism, whether it be in hotel or resort management or now as a chamber CEO. About five years ago, I realized that as business operators, we tend to take our natural resources for granted as resilient. What that brought to light was that preserving our economy in Florida means also preserving our ecology. My message to business leaders would be not to hide from that fact that this discussion should not be an either-or but a both-and discussion that has to be had every single year.

Q: The Covid pandemic has brought forward economic hardship for many businesses. From an economic perspective, what are your thoughts on how we could be impacted if faced with another water crisis on top of Covid?

A: From an economic perspective, in a word, it would be devastating to our business community if we were to be faced with a water crisis following the pandemic. In the past five years of experience, I’ve seen a category five hurricane, a water quality issue and now Covid, and they’re devastating each individually on their own. But with Covid, there was federal financial relief, and with storms, we pay insurance to get us through when they hit. With water quality issues, we’re dealing with a largely manmade catastrophe that destroys our environment and wildlife. It takes years to rebuild that, therefore the economic engine, which is tourism, is no longer viable and there’s no financial relief provided for that.

Q: When it comes to water quality issues, youve mentioned its like a death by a thousand cuts. What’s the best way for businesses to get involved and put pressure on those making decisions that affect our water quality?

A: In the elections following the 2018 water crisis, there was this organic movement to throw aside party lines and vote water. And you saw these signs all over southwest Florida, primarily on the beaches where it said “Republican, Democrat, Water” and everyone checked water. We saw the fruits of that labor from both the state and federal level in the years following. Local businesses, in my opinion, must engage in the fight and support organizations such as their local chambers and organizations like Captains For Clean Water who can represent them at all levels of government. Because we know that they don’t have the bandwidth to do that on their own. Our business community represents jobs and those jobs are held by constituents, and policymakers listen when the business community speaks.

Q:  What are some of your favorite outdoor activities?

A: Well, you know, it’s a surprise that I enjoy anything on or around the water. I mean, I like boating and I have recently tried my hand at fishing, but I also enjoy biking and I just enjoy laying in a hammock doing nothing on some days.

Q: How did you first learn about Captains For Clean Water and why did you decide to get more involved?

A: I learned about Captains For Clean Water in 2015 when I signed the Now or Neverglades Declaration. Then, I ran into Daniel and Chris the following year in Tallahassee when we were both advocating for Senate Bill 10. We didn’t know each other well, but I knew right at that point, the collaboration with them would be key. As fishing guides are such a big, yet understated part of the tourism industry and their knowledge of our local estuaries and waterways were something that we couldn’t match from a hotel and resort perspective.

Q: Do you have a favorite item of Captains merchandise?

A: Our family has every single color of the big Yeti mugs, but my signature one has turned out to be the navy blue one. Outside of that, the performance shirt is my go-to item.

Q: Where can people learn more about the Sanibel-Captiva Chamber and find out more about your efforts?

Our website is www.sanibel-captiva.org. And our visitor center is a second driveway on the right as you come off the Sanibel Causeway.

Q: Final thoughts?

A: Our organization is better at our advocacy efforts and we are more effective because of our strategic partners, like Captains For Clean Water. And I’m not just talking about the Sanibel-Captiva Chamber. We also are part of a greater Southwest Florida Alliance of Chambers, which is made up of eight chambers and represents over 300,000 jobs in this area. So I’d like to say thank you to the team for all that you guys do on a daily basis. I’d like to thank your members for making it possible for you to exist. And I’d like to thank the business community for really embracing both your organization and ours.

About “On Deck”

“On Deck” is a short film series sharing the stories of guides and businesses dealing with COVID-19 and the importance of water quality, presented by Captains For Clean Water. Check out more episodes.