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Key leader behind booming Southwest Florida village dies at 88

Don Eslick earned the nickname Mr. Estero.

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 8:15 p.m. March 23, 2023
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Donald “Don” Eslick was the Lee County Citizen of the Year in 2006.
Donald “Don” Eslick was the Lee County Citizen of the Year in 2006.
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Donald “Don” Eslick, who spent most of his working career as an economics, policy and education wonk in Illinois, shifted to urban planning in his second act, when he retired to Southwest Florida. 

But this was no mere hobby.  Eslick got deeply involved in the organizing and planning of Estero, a village in Lee County that’s become a hotbed of Florida growth in the past 20 years. So deep Eslick earned the unofficial nickname Mr. Estero, and to further honor his commitment, in 2012 the county officially named the Estero Parkway Bridge over Interstate 75 the Don Eslick Bridge. (The county also named Eslisk Citizen of the Year in 2006.)

Eslick died March 16. He was 88.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that without Don’s tenacity, persistence and commitment, Estero as we know it would simply not exist,” says Jim Gilmartin, president of Engage Estero. “Don changed a lot of people’s lives. He was something. We can’t thank him enough and will miss him.” 

Eslick was born in Chicago. He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Purdue University and an MBA from the University of Chicago, and he completed all but his dissertation for a doctorate in economics at the University of Illinois, Urbana campus, according to his official obituary. Eslick also served three years in the U.S. Air Force, where he was a Navigator/Electronics Countermeasures Officer on a B-47 crew.

After the service he went into education, teaching economics, statistics, finance and marketing at Marquette and Loyola of Chicago. He then went into education and public policy administration, where was the assistant Illinois superintendent of schools, assistant state comptroller and director of legislative research for the Illinois House of Representatives. The final phase of his professional career, his obituary states “was spent advising municipal and state governments about urban economic development finance programs while employed by investment banker Kane McKenna and Associates and as a representative of his own firm, Public Finance Associates.”

Eslick moved to Estero in 1999. Along with a group of other leaders, he helped coin the phrase a “Village with a Vision.” That served as a north star for what was then an unincorporated part of the county. In doing that, the group, says Gilmartin, wanted to avoid some of the congestion-laden decisions other fast-growth parts of Florida made. “We didn’t want to be like the east coast of Florida,” says Gilmartin, who met Eslick in 2004.

The growth plan Eslick helped develop was both deliberate and creative, says Gilmartin. And that was done against the backdrop of a population boom: In 2010, for example, the population of Estero was about 22,600. That jumped 63.7% to nearly 37,000 by 2020, according to U.S. census data. 

Eslick’s first move was to help launch the Estero Council of Community Leaders, in 2002. Now Engage Estero, that group was designed to address quality of life issues in the area. That included Village of Estero incorporation, another move Eslick helped lead, which became official with state legislation in 2014. “Other advantages to incorporation included home rule, preserving and enhancing building standards, using revenue locally, community-centered government and controlled future growth,” states a blog post about Eslick from Engage Estero.

Eslick also organized an Estero hospital committee, which was “instrumental in the ultimate development of Lee Health at Coconut Point,” the post adds. Eslick served as ECCL chairman for 10 years, from 2003 to 2012, before serving as chairman emeritus until 2019. 

Outside of civic work, Eslick was a lifelong golfer. He started as a young caddie in Marshalltown, Iowa, and played well into his 80s. Eslick is survived by his wife, Suzie Eslick.



Mark Gordon

Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.

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