“How can I help?” was what she asked after moving to Punta Gorda shortly after Hurricane Charley shattered the city. And Nancy Prafke kept asking that question again and again as she moved from an office role with Team Punta Gorda to CEO of the organization to city council woman and ultimately in November to mayor of Punta Gorda. (Punta Gorda’s mayor is elected every year by the Punta Gorda City Council).
Prafke grew up and spent a good portion of her life in Ohio. After college at Bowling Green University and grad school at Ohio State, getting an M.S. in Textiles and Clothing, she taught high school home economics for a while and then became a buyer for a division of Federated Stores (folded into Macy’s). From there, she was recruited for a sales and marketing position with Ohio Bell, finally transferring to AT&T in Denver. There, she added another degree — an MBA from Colorado State — to her credentials and became a sales instructor for a national technical marketing group. She ended her twenty-plus year with AT&T supporting call-center technology on a global basis – traveling all over the world.
After long successful careers, Nancy and her husband, John, a regional sales manager based out of Denver, began thinking about retirement. It was John who first became enamored with Punta Gorda after friends facilitated a visit here at a timeshare in Fisherman’s Village. “I could live there, John told me on the way home,” Nancy indicated, “he became obsessed about moving to Punta Gorda. I thought he was nuts.” John later persuaded his wife to return to explore purchasing a home – and you won’t believe this – on Aug. 10, 2004, a few days before Hurricane Charley thundered into Punta Gorda, they returned. Hearing about the impending storm, they left town early learning what happened from the road. Undeterred, the Prafke’s ended up purchasing their home here early the next year.
“Once I was here, I felt called to help with the rehabilitation of our community,” Prafke said. “Team Punta Gorda had formed so I told them if there was something I could do, I would be happy to help.” “I had a lot of business skills, but not engineering or land development ones, so I volunteered to be a co-chair of the administrative committee, and four months later, it was tag your it.”
“When I was asked to become CEO of Team my first reaction was you must have asked everybody, and they said ‘no’,” Nancy said with a laugh. John encouraged her to take the job reminding her of her father’s commitment to their community in Ohio, “your Dad would want you to do this.” Prafke’s Dad, a banker, was a committed fundraiser and volunteer for local charities, and in her words “the apple didn’t fall from the tree.”
“Team was my training ground,” Prafke said, “I learned to work with the city, the county and got to know the city staff and all about the community. When I joined the council, I was able to hit the ground running. I had learned so much through my volunteerism.” She credits the late Edgar Para, an architect and Team volunteer, for helping her understand land development regulations and what was in the Citizens’ Master Plan developed after “Charley” and working with her on issues with city council.
As a council woman, Prafke, “a believer in communication and listening” has made interaction with the residents a priority. “I was voted onto Council in 2013, and at the time I was the only council member who had had to run in an election,” she said, explaining that while all were elected officials, the other council members had not had challengers so they did not have to campaign and stand for election by the citizens. “Being elected by the citizens made me very aware that I was hired by them,” she noted, “I work for the residents.” To reach out to the residents, Nancy started a biweekly newsletter now sent email to over 1800 residents and many other community organizations. And yes, she is going to continue this informative resource as mayor.
Prafke is a believer in having a vision and working towards it. After responding to a plea from the late Vernon Peeples seeking a home for his vast history collection, she became a founding member of the Punta Gorda History Center and saw it come into fruition. More recently, as city council liaison, she took on the pickle ball community’s needs. Instead of just finding court space, she asked them for their vision and told them “to go for it.” Recently a committed team from that community broke ground on a new state-of-the-art Pickleplex to include 32 outdoor courts, eight indoor courts, a restaurant and bar, proshop, fitness center, and conference center at the Florida Southwestern State College campus. A facility serving this popular sport is expected by organizers to be a strong economic generator the community.
Looking ahead at her year as mayor, Prafke sees her role as a team leader noting “even though each of us represent a district, if the five of us can work together, we can do so much more to energize the community, and we as a community can achieve so much more. People who know me know I am a person who likes to build consensus to empower others and bring people together. There has been a lot of division within the community. We have a significant opportunity coming up with the development of the city-wide master plan to help disparate views come together to achieve common goals because everyone wants to retain the character of this community.”
She added, “I remember Vernon Peeples saying that 50 percent of our population turns over every eight years. That means most people here have no memory of what that town was like before Hurricane Charley and how it has changed since then. There are things happening all around us, projects like Sunseekers, the Tucker’s Grade Development. We have to anticipate change and respond to it in a positive way, help change that will benefit our community.”
When asked why she decided to run for office and to now serve as mayor, Prafke indicated that she saw it as a next step. “Things happen for a reason. The fact that I am able to serve in this capacity at this time is an honor, and I am grateful for the opportunity to serve.”