CORTEZ -- Plum Taylor's 80th birthday celebration was the first event held in the newly remodeled kitchen and dining area of the Fishermen's Hall community complex.
"It was a wonderful party for her last night," said Linda Molto, a board member of Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage, or FISH, as she pointed out all the renovations during a tour last week of the former Church of God property on 124th Street West.
FISH paid about $240,000 for the church, parsonage, Sunday school building and a large vacant lot about five years ago and has been renovating and restoring the
property, as funds allow, into a community center for the historic fishing village that hugs Sarasota Bay.
"It's important that we now have a central place where the people of Cortez can come together," Molto said. "When they do, it's unifying because they talk to each other."
The church was built in 1923 after the congregation decided it was time to go out on its own after sharing a Church of Christ sanctuary on 45th Street West on alternating Sundays, Molto said.
FISH, founded in 1991 when development was threatening the Cortez way of life, has purchased land and structures through the years to preserve the heritage.
One of its first acquisitions was the old volunteer fire hall, which was used as the community center before the church became available.
Turner Maritime Challenge at Cortez, a non-profit youth sea-training program, now operates in the fire hall.
"We want to use the buildings in Cortez and not just let them sit empty," Molto said.
Amara Nash, supervisor of the Florida Maritime Museum at Cortez located in the former village Historic Schoolhouse, said FISH is doing a great job preserving the past.
"Cortez is one of the few remaining places where you can experience Old Florida," Nash said. "It's fantastic that FISH bought the property to keep development from encroaching."
She was referring to The Preserve, land near the musueum owned by FISH.
Kim McVey, president of FISH, said the organization received $250,000 from Southwest Florida Water Management District and a wetland and upland restoration project will begin shortly after Oct. 1.
"There's a lot going (in Cortez), said Cortez native McVey, "and we're making a lot of progress."
She said FISH depends on volunteers, such as Bill Miller and Rocky Von Hahmann, to raise the funds and do a lot of the renovations on their buildings.
"Also we have Chris and Gil Martinez, who are new to the community, doing a lot of work," McVey said.
FISH continues to fund projects that promotes Cortez heritage, McVey said: "Cortez is a wonderful community and people want to volunteer.
Even native Corteziana who have moved out of the village are pitching in to serve the community.
Rose Lipke, who was born and raised in Cortez, was is the newest FISH board member.
"Now that my children are grown and I'm more settled, I'm able to give back," Lipke said. "It's a Cortez tradition to volunteer."
She moved from the village to take care of her father, but not far -- only to 75th Street West -- and said she maintains a connection to Old Cortez.
"It's up to us to preserve the heart of the community," Lipke said, "and it's important for each generation to step up."
A large portion of the FISH budget comes from the proceeds of its biggest fund-raiser, the annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival, which will be held Feb. 14 and Feb. 15.
"Last year, we raised $100,000," said Molto, who has been festival chairwoman for the past four years.
"We very proud of our accomplishments," she said.