Jul 21, 2022 - Politics

The man behind the push to save wild Florida

An aerial view of Florida's northern Everglades at dusk.
The northern Everglades. Photo courtesy of Adam Bass, Conservation Florida

Arnie Bellini built his Tampa tech firm ConnectWise from the ground up, then sold it for an estimated $1.5 billion, a deal so big that more than 70 workers at the employee-owned business became millionaires.

  • Now the wealthy Republican philanthropist wants to save Florida wilderness from development, and he's putting his money and energy into the effort.

What they're saying: "I'm pursuing this just like I would a tech startup," Bellini, 63, told Axios. "We're not taking your normal approach to it. We're not hugging trees. We can hug trees. We like hugging trees. But we're asking: How do we balance economy and ecology? And we're approaching this in a very aggressive way."

Why it matters: 900 people move to Florida every day, and that pace of population growth alongside poor environmental stewardship has jeopardized the fresh water supply and entire species of wildlife.

  • While some 9.6 million acres of the Florida Wildlife Corridor have been protected, 8.1 million acres are at risk of development.

Driving the news: Bellini, who led the charge to get the state to pass the $300 million Florida Wildlife Corridor Act a year ago, is now putting $5 million toward a new statewide media and advertising campaign called Live Wildly.

Details: Live Wildly is launching a PSA campaign on radio, TV and online that highlights the corridor's role in Florida's ecology and economy.

  • The ad campaign will embrace and try to transform the oft derogatory "Florida man" motif, using the tagline: "So wild Florida Man calls it home."
  • Digital features like an interactive map will help visitors connect to outdoors opportunities in the corridor, such as biking, camping and kayaking.
  • And Bellini's Live Wildly Foundation has partnered with groups like Conservation Florida, Path of the Panther, Florida Wildlife Federation and Florida Trails Association to find new ways to protect the corridor, including providing angel funding for conservation projects.
An ad campaign from Live Wildly with statistics about the Florida Wildlife Corridor.
An infographic used in Live Wildly's new marketing campaign, courtesy of the Live Wildly Foundation

The backstory: Why would a man who could afford a $9.25 million home on Clearwater Beach give a tortoise’s tush about the environment? Balance.

The big picture: Bellini and his wife Lauren announced plans in 2019 to dedicate $70 million to local workforce projects, intending to create 70,000 jobs in seven years.

Yes, but: That level of growth would mean paving half of Hillsborough County, he told Axios.

  • "How do you compensate for that? Well, you have to preserve the green spaces we have left."

Flashback: In 2006, Bellini saw a Florida panther on the boardwalk leading to the lake behind his home in Avila — the big cat was on its back, batting at a butterfly.

  • The two made eye contact and Bellini's life changed. The avid cyclist who once swam the English Channel dedicated himself to saving nature.

What's next: His mission is to give every Floridian that same experience: coming face to face with wild Florida.

  • "We have to preserve the opportunity for that experience for years to come," he said.
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