Every region is defined by the people who populate it. Judging from this year’s class of Men & Women of the Year, Southwest Florida is defined by a unique mix of strivers and achievers all working in some way to make a positive impact on the area—and by extension, the world at large.
In this issue we honor nine such men and women. They represent different backgrounds and fields of endeavor, but they share one thing in common: they’ve all touched innumerable lives in ways that really count. These individuals run the gamut from an architect with environmental issues on his mind, to an interior designer of rare vision, to a philanthropist who has given more to her community than could ever be totaled in dollars and cents. They’ve worked in the areas of education, development, charities, the arts and entrepreneurship, but their achievements stretch far beyond these fields.
The Sustainable Developer
What a year to be in charge!
Last January, Sydney Kitson was elected to chairman of the Board of Governors for the State University System of Florida, supervisors of the state’s 12 higher-learning institutions. He delved in with the gusto you’d expect from an ex-NFL’er and the guy who is building his own town—the solar-powered, high-tech, civic-minded Babcock Ranch in Charlotte County. “One of my primary initiatives was to work with the universities to prepare our students to work with the business community and really marry those two,” says Kitson, who is also a past chairman of the Florida Chamber of Commerce board and incoming chairman of the Florida Council of 100. Three months later, COVID-19 erupted.
Goodbye, long-term visioning. Hello, crisis management.
Seventy thousand professors took their classes online, 420,000 students logged in from home. Meanwhile, Kitson oversaw the delicate work of crafting a reopening blueprint. The agreed-upon plan offered both universal guidance and ample flexibility. Not everyone was pleased—a statewide faculty union opposed in-person instruction—but Kitson stands behind the decision to resume live operations and believes the universities will anchor the state’s pandemic recovery. It’s a roundabout way of achieving his education-business union, but, hey, Kitson is all about the long game.
Should you need proof, look to Babcock Ranch. Kitson conceived the town in the early aughts, negotiated a historic land purchase, persevered through the Great Recession and welcomed the first residents in 2018. Pandemic notwithstanding, sales remain brisk, construction endures and environmental benefits mount. (The carbon offset from the town’s Florida Power & Light solar facilities is equivalent to removing some 24,000 cars from the road annually.)
Building a town would be quite enough for most businesspeople. Not this one. “You know, in life you don’t get to choose the timing of opportunities,” says the former guard for the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys. That’s why he said “yes” to the Board of Governors, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Council of 100, and to any other number of leadership invitations. “When that opportunity presents itself, you have a choice to make.”
We’ll happily assert that Floridians are better off for Kitson’s decisions.—J.R.