BONITA SPRINGS — The city of Bonita Springs birthday party gets bigger every year with Country Music Award winners Thompson Square drawing the largest crowd yet to the free all-day concert on Saturday at Riverside Park.
Country music lovers were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the three-time Academy of Country Music award winners—even if they were just country fans for the day.
“I become a country fan a week before the event. I’m just extremely happy we could get Thompson Square in what clearly is going to be a very successful career after just winning yet another CMA award,” said City Manager Carl Schwing.
The annual Celebrate Bonita Festival honored the city’s 14th birthday and drew attendees from throughout south Florida, including from Naples, Estero, Fort Myers and the East Coast.
Diane Endres of Albany, New York attended Celebrate Bonita for the first time, but said she’ll be back as she awaits closing on a home purchase in Bonita Springs any day.
“Thompson Square, that’s why we’re here,” said Endres, as she sat in a lawn chair in the shade near friends who also originated from upstate New York.
Among them was Laurie Fricker, now of North Naples.
“I’m country, she’s a little bit rock n roll,” said Endres, eying Fricker.
“I like oldies too, since we are oldies,” quipped Fricker with a smile.
Bob LaPierre, of Bonita Springs, attends every year and said the party gets better with age.
“Every year it gets better. The whole experience is a good time and they have a really good line up this year,” said LaPierre.
Among Thompson Square’s biggest fans at the event was City Councilman and deputy mayor Steve McIntosh, who was wearing a burnt orange colored event t-shirt donning the duo’s name along with a proclamation of love for the City of Bonita Springs
“It’s terrific anytime the city can put together an event like this free to the public. It’s great for the city. It’s great for everybody. Thompson Square, I love ‘em,” exclaimed McIntosh, who added that he bought their first album as soon as it was available.
“This is a very exciting day for us,” said the country fan, as he sat with Councilman Bill Lonkart and wife Barbara Lonkart.
“The citizens of Bonita Springs are very lucky they can have a free concert like this. The foods are wonderful—I’ll be hitting the ice cream,” said Barbara Lonkart.
Cowboy hats and boots abound at the park, but it wasn’t all country.
“I’m a fan of everything,” said City Councilwoman Janet Martin.
She took a look down at her shoes—sandals.
“I was going to wear my cowboy boots, I really was, but I thought they’d be too hot,” said Martin.
Nonetheless—she was a country fan, at least for the day, she said smiling.
Crowds were building throughout the afternoon as the headliner finally took the stage later in the evening.
In the meantime, rock fans and other music lovers had plenty to enjoy with entertainment appealing to a wide variety of styles and ages.
Wild-colored Corvettes from the Corvette Club of Naples drew onlookers just outside the Artists’ Cottages at Liles Hotel, where artists were working, talking about their creative processes and displaying their art for visitors.
Celebrate Bonita was a treat for the creative-minded with a Chalk Where You Walk sidewalk art competition, larger than life-size metal sculptures by Dale Rogers in the “Big Dog Show” and other attractions.
A small train gave rides around the park, meandering near bounce houses as diverse as the rest of the entertainment, including a saucer-shaped space ship bounce house that had multiple doors that swept open for children, among other bounce house shapes, themes and varieties.
Naples residents had a strong showing at the event that ran from about 2 p.m. until 9 p.m., as many attendees said they drove up to celebrate their neighboring city’s birthday.
“We’re country at heart. We’ll come here before we go to the Phil (Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts),” said Linda Pulver, 69 of Naples, who was sitting on a park bench under a shade tree in Riverside Park along with several friends, including Canadians Luba Sargeant, 60, and Derek Sargeant, 65, holding their leashed, long-haired Shetland Sheepdog named Diva, 5.
Country fan Morgan Jones, 24, and fan for a day Ryan Miller, 25, sat together on a bench awaiting the husband-and-wife duo of Keifer and Shawna Thompson, who not only won the Academy of Country Music’s “Vocal Duo of the Year” in 2012, but also just came off another CMA win days before the concert with their recent release of “If I didn’t Have You,” helping the due win the 2013 CMA in the categories of New Artist of the Year and Duo of the Year.
“I like the food, especially the pulled pork (from Southern Boys BBQ of South Fort Myers). I wish Naples had the same type of thing,” said Miller of the all-day free concert.
Also loving the food were Naples residents Judy Colern, 71, and George Colern, 73, as the began sampling several chilis in the annual chili cookoff.
“We both love chili and we come every year,” said the couple as they first sampled the Sweetbay Supermarekts’ chili, which won the judge’s vote. Winning the people’s choice was the Bonita Springs Fire Department.
Other Celebrate Bonita winners included the finders of the historical Sammy the Snook scavenger hunt—Richard Blasucci, 21, and Brock Piper, 20. (son of David Piper, a former Bonita Springs Councilman and co-owner of the family’s Everglades Wonder Gardens, which is closing Sunday.)
The crowds slowly built throughout the day and into the evening, exceeding the 6,000 attendees of 2012, but not quite reaching the 10,000 people city officials had previously estimated.
As Thompson Square took the stage, the park was “rockin’,” as Mayor Ben Nelson put it.