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  • Gulf Coast Leisure brings Biggie to Florida's 'melting pot'

    Gulf Coast Leisure's signature event -- the Art and Poetry Networking Event (APNE) -- features poets, rappers, singers, painters, and entrepreneurs on the last Thursday of every month. The sense of culture is apparent as soon as you walk through the door at the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center in Fort Myers. Large paintings cover each wall and the colors light up the room. The late great Notorious B.I.G. sits in front of a paint splattered display with an iconic Raiders logo on his hat. The gangster rapper, who died in 1997, is a staple in hip-hop culture.

    As the stage gets prepped for the night’s entertainment, multiple painters prepare real-time pieces as spectators ask them about their inspirations. It’s a scene you’d expect at a gallery in Brooklyn, but it’s instead been transferred to downtown Fort Myers.

    "I've been able to share a lot of great moments with friends and family when they come down to visit," Fort Myers resident David Fairman said in a Facebook testimonial. "I'm giving them something different -- a diverse crowd with a lot of energy and a variety of things to do and see all under one roof."

    As poets begin to take the mic, it’s easy to see why Franklin and Cruz saw so much potential in Southwest Florida’s crop of talent. Local artists Shay the Poet and Angel the Dancer sing a duet of Lauryn Hill’s “Doo-Wop” as people snap their fingers and sway back and forth.

    For one night, I feel like I’m back in West Philly. "If you've never been into the arts or you're like, 'I wanna do something different,' you can come to Art and Poetry and get inspired," Cruz said. "We try to make that our exclusive highlight event."

    Speak My Peace is Gulf Coast Leisure's second major event and it happens on the first Saturday of every month at The American Legion Post 38. Artists step up to the open mic and perform poetry while attendees sit back and enjoy free food and drinks to create a family experience. Franklin said he wants Speak My Peace to be a judgment-free zone. A place where anyone can come and speak their mind respectfully.

    "You have a venue where you can be a poet, a singer, a storyteller, or you can just have no artistic background but you want to get something off your chest," Franklin said. "It started off as an event where we just had spoken word, but with everything GCL does, we allow for growth."

    Community Outreach
    Perhaps GCL's biggest accomplishment in its six-year run has been its community outreach through artist collaboration and networking. Cruz and Franklin are passionate about using their platform to give Southwest Floridians a voice and means to make a change in the area.

    The group has worked with nonprofits and the Southwest Florida Quality of Life Center to bring awareness to issues like HIV/AIDS and autism that can affect people in the area but often times still carry a negative stigma. "Right now we transcend generations and cultures," Cruz said. "We do a lot, and we only want to do more." Despite not making any significant profits with Gulf Coast Leisure, Cruz and Franklin said they are in it for the community growth.

    "I haven't seen any other group (doing this)," said Ariel Vazquez, GCL's videographer who connected with Franklin in high school. "They're literally the glue bringing everyone together."

    Cruz and Franklin believe it matters that someone cares about the arts in Southwest Florida, especially with so many people moving in and out of town. Often times natives to the area get left out because no one is thinking about them and their needs. "It hasn't always brought us the most money and our shows haven't always been packed but we haven't stopped," Cruz said.

    "Now we can't stop because we've put in so much work that the evolution is inevitable for us as a company, as a movement, and as leaders in the area as well."

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