The ultimate fate of Bay Oaks may lay in the hands of the advisory committee created to watch over it, as – after refusing to let the committee meet for several months – Town Council decided at their Monday workshop to let BORCAB (Bay Oaks Recreation Center Advisory Board) review and make recommendations on a report created by Town staff. Council also learned about what does and does not qualify for funding from the Tourist Development Council (TDC) after listening to and commenting on an informative presentation by Visitors and Convention Bureau (VCB) Director Tamara Pigott.
Charlie Whitehead, speaking on behalf of the Beach Area Civic Association (BACA), said he believes the Bay Oaks report created by staff is missing some very important elements.
“I assume the next step for these few programs is to ascertain how much the parents were able to make at their jobs because their children were at these programs, and how much those businesses were able to make because the parents could work there,” he said. “Also, how much these parents were able to pay in property taxes because they were able to work knowing their children were being taken care of. The money needed to keep Bay Oaks open and these programs going is a trifle – there are benefits that Maureen (Administrative Services Director Maureen Rischitelli) cannot measure with her calculator. I urge Council to ask for all the information before budget talks begin, and if Maureen and Don (Town Manager Don Stilwell) don’t provide it, I will.”
Resident Ed Scott addressed Mayor Dennis Boback, asking for a ‘fair assessment’ of what merchants in Time Square are paying to lease space for tables and chairs there.
“I believe we are way underpriced,” he said.
Tamara Pigott, Director of the Visitors and Convention Bureau (VCB) gave a presentation on what her organization does and how projects are funded.
“In 2015, we had just under 5 million visitors, of which 3 million stayed in what we call ‘paid accommodations’,” she said. “They spent just $3 billion, and created 56,843 jobs in Lee County – meaning one in five employees work in the tourism industry. This is why we market our area – it feeds our families. As far as the bed tax, we collected $38 million last year, up 13.2% from 2014. 14.6% of that was from Fort Myers Beach – more than any other municipality – but unincorporated Lee makes the largest contribution.”
Tamara explained that a little more than half of that money goes to marketing, 26.4% to beaches and shorelines and 20% for stadium facilities.
“As far as who serves on the TDC, previously, the largest municipality had a permanent seat, which in our case was Cape Coral,” she said. “But they were the smallest contributor to the bed tax. Commissioner Larry Kiker worked very hard to get that changed to the largest contributor, so now Fort Myers Beach has had a seat for the last three years with the rest of the municipalities rotating.”
Pigott explained that the 26.4% for beaches and shorelines has very specific language set by the state as to what it can be used for.
“Each fiscal year, the VCB develops a timeline for the program,” she said. “We have a workshop, and then the application is open. The county attorney reviews requests and any Attorney General (AG) opinions that have been issued, the Coastal Advisory Council reviews them for technical input to make sure the request is tight and can be accomplished. Then the TDC has a workshop where they form general consensus, then approve their recommendations at the following meeting. After that it goes to the Board of County Commissioners, who make a decision during the budget process in the fall.”
Councilwoman Rexann Hosafros asked if there is any formal process for appealing items rejected for funding.
“The BoCC will take the advice of their attorney – so if something’s been deemed ineligible by that attorney it would take a great deal to overcome that,” Pigott replied.
Tamara said that – since 2000 – nearly $105 million has been allocated to Beaches and Shorelines with the bulk of it – 45% – going to maintenance. She also explained that funds may be allocated to a municipality but not spent.
“23% of the total beach and shoreline allocation went to projects on Fort Myers Beach,” she said. “Also San Carlos Bay (Bunche Beach) and Lovers Key received a great deal of funding. Similarly, county-wide projects that benefit your community – such as MOTE’s Beach Conditions Reporting System – have gotten funding.”
“We also have an Arts and Attractions Funding Program, for which applications opened today,” she concluded.
Councilwoman Tracey Gore asked why bay improvements have been turned down recently.
“There was an AG opinion in 2015 that indicated that docks, etc, can only be done when they’re part of a park facility so there’s clear public use,” Tamara said.
“So with our Bay Oaks and pool, if we did attractions there, we might be able to get some help?” Gore asked, and Pigott said she thinks the Arts and Attractions program ‘would make sense’ for Bay Oaks.
Mayor Dennis Boback asked if TDC dollars could be used to enhance Crescent Beach Park, and Pigott replied yes and suggested Council ask the commissioners for their help.
Maureen Rischitelli than gave staff’s report, called a ‘Snap Shot of Operations at Bay Oaks and Beach Pool’.
“If you look at the school, you’ll see that a portion of the east ball field, the east ball field batting cage, the east tennis court, the playground used for recess and some open space does not belong to the Town – it belongs to the Lee County School Board,” she said. “When the Town took over Bay Oaks in 2009, nothing was put into writing, so we’ve been using these areas and doing the maintenance. I’d like to go back to the School Board and formally shore up what their expectations are. The next thing we’d like direction on is capital improvements. Staff has identified urgent requests such as the air conditioning and the ramp that goes over the driveway to the front door, as it is crumbling.”
Gore asked about the pool’s heater, and Maureen replied that the pool could operate without heaters.
“We keep it at 75 degrees,” she said.
Mayor Dennis Boback said that the Health Department recommends 82 to 86 degrees as an optimum level.
Hosafros said that Sarah Mayher has received a grant to help with the summer kids’ programs, and Boback asked when BORCAB was planning on weighing in. Rischitelli replied that she would be giving them a presentation Thursday.
“We looked at special programs, and whether or not to do them quarterly or monthly,” Rischitelli said. “The Town has a corporate sponsorship policy – for instance, if someone wants to give us a million dollars and rename it Jet Blue Bay Oaks, would Council be interested in that? Allowing someone else to put their name on the facility?”
Council agreed to meet with BORCAB to get their recommendations on everything Rischitelli presented.
Keri Hendry Weeg