Bonita Bay: From Vision to Reality – Honoring Founder David Shakarian

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I never worked a day in my life. It’s not work when you love what you’re doing. 

-David Shakarian

As a resident – or guest – of Bonita Bay, have you ever walked outside your property to observe the unique landscape, or driven through the main gate and wondered how it all began? Have you contemplated how this incredible parcel of two thousand four hundred acres came to exist?

If you’ve read Bonita Bay resident, David Shellenbarger’s book, Unspoiled Will Spoil You, The History of the Development of Bonita Bay, then you probably possess a solid historical foundation of Bonita Bay’s timeline that began in the mid-1980s and continues today. If you are not familiar with the history of Bonita Bay, it began with another man named David.

David Shakarian.

And this is his story…

The year was 1981.

The price for a gallon of gas was $1.25.

As a pioneer in the nutrition and health food industry, David Shakarian, the creator of General Nutrition Centers (GNC), launched his real-estate empire by purchasing land in southwest Florida in anticipation of the completion of I-75.  In total, he acquired 4,400 acres in south Lee County and began his intricate design plan for a 2,400-acre parcel located in Bonita Springs that would one-day flourish into the enviable community called Bonita Bay.

Unlike other land developers who would completely strip vacant land of any identifiers or natural landscape before drafting their “vision,” Shakarian took a more organic approach. Before the first shovel-full of dirt was moved, he spent an entire year collaborating with both engineers and consultants to identify any sensitive wildlife and plant populations that currently existed on the property in an effort to preserve as many “unspoiled” areas as possible.  After the “untouchable” areas and landmarks were noted, construction planning was designed around these permanent assets, keeping one-of-a-kind features intact; mature trees, natural landscapes, marshes, shell mounds, midden traps, verdant mangroves – and any other unique land traits that existed within the boundary markers of the original Bonita Bay land.

Because of Shakarian’s avant-guard approach, ultimately he spearheaded this newly adapted concept – building around natural features – which resulted in many changes to future land permitting processes in the local area for decades to come. Simply stated, Shakarian single-handedly instituted new development “standards” by remaining authentic to his concept: living in harmony with nature.

Economic times turned difficult in the early 1980s, forcing Shakarian to delay initial construction. Finally, in 1983, development of the Marsh Golf Course began at Bonita Bay, followed by the first Bonita Bay Clubhouse – which consisted of a snack bar and a pro shop – as well as the first single-family neighborhood – Woodlake – and the pioneer condominiums of Wild Pines.

This is the part of the story where fantasy would be an easier share than reality. Sadly, as quickly as his dream began, for David Shakarian – it reached a premature end.

In early 1984, nearly a year since embarking on his Bonita Bay journey, Shakarian was diagnosed with colon cancer.  Treatment was unsuccessful, and before the first golf course reached completion and initial occupants crossed the threshold of their new abodes, Mr. Shakarian lost his battle with cancer. Tragically, he never lived to personally witness the fruition of his master plan.

The years continued to pass, and the development of Bonita Bay continued according to the vision outlined by David Shakarian. For decades after his death, the remaining members of the Shakarian family continued to occupy Bonita Bay, where they were able to personally witness and enjoy the furthering of the developmental plan. They realized a legacy in motion.

Enter David Shellenbarger, a Michigan native who discovered Bonita Bay in 1994 and bought property herein five years later. He was enamored by the history of Bonita Bay and began researching its remarkable story. With a great deal of assistance from those who worked on the development of the community – from beginning to end – Shellenbarger compiled the story of Bonita Bay’s history as detailed in his self-published book.

“My research into our community’s history started with a series of articles that I wrote in 2014 for Bay Watch News. The initial reader response was enthusiastic and more stories and anecdotes came forth from longtime residents.  I spent several months interviewing past and present Bonita Bay managers and employees, as well as long-term residents to recreate the most accurate records possible. It was greatly satisfying to have the book so well received. I thank those who purchased the book – and for their continued interest in the values and principles that led to the creation of our trend-setting community.”  – David Shellenbarger, author, and BB resident

With the proceeds earned from his book, Shellenbarger commissioned the creation of a memorial bronze in the likeness of David Shakarian in hopes that current and future generations of Bonita Bay will always understand the directive as outlined by its founder – complex symbiotic living between humans, wildlife, nature and the landscape.

D. Shak Bust
David Shakarian Memorial

The memorial bronze of David Shakarian was created by local sculptor and art teacher Douglas Corsini and is on permanent display in the Bonita Bay Community Activities Center for all residents to enjoy.

At the Board of Directors’ meeting in January, the bronze statue was presented to the Association by David Shellenbarger.

David Lucas, son in law to the late Shakarian, and the person responsible for overseeing the development of Bonita Bay was present and offered words of appreciation from the family. It was a fitting tribute to a visionary who was ahead of his time with regards to historical landscape preservation and land development. 



Written by Katie Walters

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