Council Puts Brakes on Building
At their June 4 Management & Planning Session, the Fort Myers Beach Town Council reviewed the second draft of the Downtown Bayside Park redevelopment plan that included a building bordering Nervous Nellie’s Waterfront Eatery that would have Mooring Field amenities such as laundries, showers and restrooms as well as a stage, public restrooms, and top floor observation deck overlooking Estero Bay. Council member Jim Atterholt at that time wanted to receive public comment on the new design, “so we can give this a thorough vetting, as the public has not yet weighed in. This is such a public place, so I want to be careful before we give the nod to go forward.”
Even though Bayside Park was not on Council’s June 15 meeting agenda, Atterholt received his wish, as a dozen people spoke against it during Public Comment, with not one in support. This caused Bayside Park redevelopment to become the meeting’s primary topic, taking up roughly half the session’s 2 hours and 15 minutes, with Council ultimately halting further work until it can gain additional community input.
Who Do you Serve?
During Public Comment, Nervous Nellie’s owner Len Lemmer said, “There has been a lot of discussion about Bayside Park but unfortunately the Town did not seek the opinions of those most affected by the building! Nervous Nellie’s, Marina Village at Snug Harbor, and the Harbour House all oppose this. It will only benefit those using the Mooring Field and take away rights from everyone else. You have an optional plan in the Harbour House to house Mooring Field amenities that is much more economical than this building. The effect on our business will be devastating, with 100 waterview seats replaced with a view of a concrete wall. We estimate this will cost us $1 million in revenue and the loss of ten fulltime jobs.” Tyler Lemmer added, “We favor updating Bayside Park with things like a Veterans’ Memorial, but not a 3-story laundromat!”
Marina Village Manager Laurie Russell noted, “Not one of our owners wants this, so please don’t build this! There is an online poll that shows that 90% of respondents are against this, and I think that is low; I think it is 100% as this is truly horrible!” Bob Burgess told Council that he opposed Bayside Park having “facilities for bums, drug addicts, alcoholics and lowlifes to invade our community.
Harbour House unit owner Natalie Richardson said, “You talk about the observation deck. Why are you so concerned about an observation deck and not about us? There is a petition circulating with nearly 500 signatures against this and only a handful in favor. Ask yourself who you are elected to serve: the taxpayers of Fort Myers Beach or visitors who hook up to the 70 mooring balls? Do the right thing and stop the destruction of that area. We are informed now, are incredibly disappointed and ask you not to move forward with this project.” Todd Richardson added, “This started out in February as a need for a couple more showers for the Mooring Field, when no one wanted a building, with a stage and military tribute, so that is the reason a lot of us did not get involved then; today that is different!”
Atterholt stated, “I don’t think anybody had any bad motives. The COVID-19 crisis came up and for a variety of reasons, attention to the park moved off to the side. Perhaps it is time to slow down and fully vet this, as that will help us in the process, with good communication, so we can be as sensitive as we can. I still have concerns about this project so we need to be mindful of that.”
Look at Another Option
Toward the end of the meeting, under “Town Manager Items,” Roger Hernstadt reminded Council, “Work continues by the consultant on the Bayside project until we have instructions to the contrary. At some point, we will have a product available for further comments by the community, so be aware of that, unless Council directs us to do otherwise.”
Atterholt asked if the Town Manager met with Harbour House representatives about their alternative proposal, “as it seems we ought to talk to each other.” Hernstadt replied, “We started talking about a facility, then not a facility, and now we are in the planning process. The park may have a building with Mooring Field facilities or may not have one. Right now, we are working on that plan, but if you want us to speak to the developer about the other opportunity, we are happy to do that.” Vice Mayor Rexann Hosafros noted that if the Harbour House does eventually have Mooring Field laundry facilities, “people will still bring their laundry through Bayside Park, as the Harbour House is further away; I am not taking sides but pointing out that inconsistency.”
Atterholt said he would like the Town Manager to explore the Harbour House option, “That should be vetted, to hear if it is practical, as it does not sound like we have done that yet. As good stewards, we need to hear these folks out, as it could be helpful to see if that will work or not.” Hosafros said, “We are not that far along in the process yet; some feel that we are being nefarious and that is not what is going on.” Atterholt stated, “No one argues that we should renovate the park, but then the building came up during the coronavirus shutdown and it just became hard to follow, so it is nobody’s fault. We need to be fully aware of this so that everybody can be heard.”
Hosafros asked, “Do you want to halt this?” “I have serious concerns about this being in a public park,” Atterholt replied. “That park is for residents and I don’t want to subvert that for a service building that is for 70 folks. I am trying to keep an open mind but have concerns and am curious about the alternative.”
Council member Bill Veach sympathized, “I understand the perception that people have, but I have been involved in this for over a year. My first thought was that it sounded like a poor use for that park but the design showed a vision I did not have. We worked on this a long time, with a whole lot of progress, until the building came up. I do agree that if there is another option on the table, we should develop that before we go too much further along, to see if it makes a lot of sense with the numbers, to see what that will cost us, and compare that to the new building, to not rush ahead.”
Go or No Go?
Council member Dan Allers weighed in, “As you will recall from the Management & Planning Session, I am not in favor of a laundry facility at this park. Based on that and Jim’s comments, it would be in our best interest to take a long look at this. This is not what was discussed by the previous Town Council so we would be best served to slow this down and examine the other option, and get input from the people as our best course of action.” Mayor Ray Murphy agreed, “There are other options on the table; no doubt about that. The question is do we consider that option or spend more money on the plan. If that is not the will of the Council, should we move forward, hold it for a while, or flat out kill it?”
Allers said that “I am in support of doing something with that space, but I don’t know about the Mooring facilities. The previous Town Councilors had a vision for a smaller use and Veterans’ Tribute, with a bigger greenspace but not a building that large.” Murphy inquired, “If you do not see that facility for the Mooring Field, than why have that building? Is the will of Council to keep moving on this?” Hosafros said she would “still like to see restrooms there, but if three of you want to slow this down, then we have to tell them to, as their current marching orders are to continue.” Veach stated, “I am not necessarily against the building but I would like to table this until we can compare options ‘A’ and ‘B.’”
Hernstadt suggested instructing the consultant to shift work from Bayside Park to the Bay Oaks Recreational Center redesign “while we look at the alternative, to see if it is viable. The last thing we want is to develop a full set of plans and not go forward. In the meantime, we can get more information from the Community Resources Advisory Board and the Anchorage Advisory Committee.” Council instructed the Town Manager to proceed in those directions.