County Proposes Re-Operating Bay Oaks

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When people rate the Quality-of-Life aspects of Fort Myers Beach, every short list contains our beaches and water, great elementary school and dynamic public library, and the Bay Oaks Recreation Center, the heart of the Town’s athletic and programming endeavors from childhood through senior years. Bay Oaks had been a Lee County regional recreation center until The Great Recession forced it upon the Town in 2009. Now Lee County is in the initial process of examining whether to reacquire and turn Bay Oaks into a regional center once again.

The common link in this story is District 3 Commissioner Larry Kiker, in whose district falls Fort Myers Beach. Back in 2009, however, Kiker was then mayor of Fort Myers Beach!

“Lee County had budget issues and was looking for ways to cut expenses,” he recalls. “They approached the Town about Bay Oaks, and I was Mayor. The County claimed Bay Oaks was not a regional center, although their own usage numbers said it absolutely was. They basically gave us an ultimatum to take it over or they would close it, and I really, really personally felt Bay Oaks was the heartbeat of the island and once it was shut down, we would never get it back up again. The remainder of Town Council at the time echoed that feeling, so we sucked it up and took it on. The entire Town budget then was roughly $3 million and Bay Oak would require about one-third of that, so it was a considerable splurge for us, but we made it through and actually put some money away, as that Council did a good job of handling funds. The other thing is we assessed the facility to determine what issues it required, and the County gave us in excess of $450,000 to make those improvements, like replacing the roof, though I am not sure that was ever actually done.”

Star Power!

Commissioner Kiker explained that when the Village of Estero recently incorporated, it briefly discussed with Lee County the possibility of purchasing and managing the regional recreation center within its municipal boundaries, “and that was the catalyst for me to think back to 2009. I thought that the County pushed Bay Oaks on the Town; that it was inappropriate, and the wrong thing to do, and I still believe that. The more I thought of it, I felt this is something we could look at, then what really pushed it over the edge for me to continue this effort full-force was the opportunity to move the historic Hepburn Cottage to Matanzas Pass Preserve, as that site for years has sought an education center, but Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regulations would force them to build a treehouse!”

The Hepburn Cottage is the former Boca Grande vacation home of the late Hollywood movie icon, Katherine Hepburn. The current property owner wants to rebuild, forcing either its relocation or destruction. “It is FEMA exempt, comes with some funds, and can serve as a regional education center,” he explains, “so it immediately tackles those problems all at once.”

Spurred on by this, he broached the topic to his fellow Commissioners on June 6. “The rest of the Board thought it a fantastic idea, but said we need to look at all of Lee County, to make sure it is equitable, as Cape Coral and Lehigh Acres and Alva all have similar needs, so we will expand our scope all across the area, but will begin with Bay Oaks. We have a plan in motion, with the County and Town crews working side-by-side, looking at the same stuff at the same time. We will perform due diligence, like examining the roof and air conditioning and the electrical system and all the things you do when you consider acquiring a building. When we discover problems, we will probably establish a standard that the Town must meet, to bring the facility up before we discuss taking it back. This is the same as happened in 2009, when the County gave the Town money for repairs, only now we reverse roles.”

Pros & Cons

“We have to look at this as both an opportunity and a challenge moving forward, as this is something we have to do,” said Sean DePalma, Parks & Recreation Director for the Town. “The County proposal may be in the Town’s best interest, so we have to evaluate that option, as we need to ensure continuity and services to the best possible degree. There will be pros and cons, and we need to evaluate them without emotion, because I think this will be an emotional topic to many Fort Myers Beach residents. We need to analyze all the data, especially the financial components, to see if Lee County can provide the level of specialized service from Bay Oaks that Town citizens expect.”

In evaluating those pros and cons, DePalma’s initial reaction was that “Lee County may be able to provide more financial resources for the much-needed capital improvements that sooner or later Bay Oaks will require, like a new roof. The main advantage of remaining under the Town is the facility is under local control, really the essence of why the Town broke away from the County over 20 years ago. Lee County will make Bay Oaks decisions based on its population of 680,000 citizens versus the Town’s 6,800 people, as the majority of our current patronage is from island residents and visitors and not the much larger county.”

The Bay Oaks staff will work with Lee County on its evaluation and review process, with all the necessary information, to build data on its entire operation, DePalma said, “and then we will see where the process goes.” The Commissioner feels the site review will last at least into the August to October timeframe, “and that would work out well, as that matches the Budget discussions for both the County and Town, as this will be a pretty big number for us and a much greater one even yet for the Town, so relevant discussions at that point will be significant.”

Initial Reaction is Minimal

Initial reaction is minimal, said the Commissioner: “I discussed this with four of the five Town Council members, and all have an open mind; interestingly each has an initial reaction from a different perspective, ranging from childhood memories to thinking the County ran it well; from expanding its programming to helping out the Town’s bottom line. The only concerns voiced so far are about the employees there, and those are good concerns that we need to address.”

“I am already working with our staff to keep their morale on the rise,” explained DePalma, “and that is the most difficult part – not knowing what the future holds – as we want to be as upfront with them and our customers as much as possible, but we are so early in the process that there are not a lot of answers right now. It is what it is, and we are making strides, and I tell everyone it is all going to be OK regardless of the final solution. Either way, what matters most is what is best for the people of the Town.”

Fort Myers Beach Mayor Dennis Boback, when asked at the May meeting of the Estero Island Taxpayer’s Association if the Town would ever close Bay Oaks or its other Quality-of-Life amenities, indicated that he wants them to remain viable but they are expensive, and he would consider other funding possibilities. “Over 50% of the Town’s annual budget supports the Mound House, Newton Park, the Bay Oaks Recreation Center, its pool and the anchorage. I am not advocating or even saying we should close any of those as they are all community assets – no question about that – but the problem becomes economics: how much can we afford to subsidize these, as those five go up every year.”

Bay Oaks, Larry Kiker, fort myers beach
Larry Kiker, Lee County District 3 Commissioner

Commissioner Kiker has yet to hear feedback from private citizens, but “my guess is Fort Myers Beach residents are either OK with their elected officials handling this, or they are passing along concerns to Town Council. Let me please be very clear on this – should the Town tell the County that it has no interest, then it is a dead deal! Should the Town indicate it wants to proceed, there will be plenty of public hearings to receive input from residents.

“Even when I was on Fort Myers Beach Council back then as mayor, I always thought Bay Oaks was important for the Quality of Life to Fort Myers Beach, almost like it is woven into that neighborhood, with the Beach Elementary School and Fort Myers Beach Public Library, and that families and children and seniors gravitate there. If Lee County can bring more to that area, through public and even private support, we can make Bay Oaks even greater than it is now. I have high hopes that this will work out!”

Gary Mooney