The members of the Fort Myers Beach Town Council and the Lee County Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) filled the front of the meeting room at Florida SouthWestern State College last Monday afternoon. County and town staff were scattered among the standing room only crowd of over 300 Fort Myers Beach residents and business owners as developers Tom Torgerson and John Dammermann of Grand Resorts Fort Myers Beach laid out their vision of a major redevelopment for downtown Fort Myers Beach.
Lee County Commission Chairman Frank Mann opened the meeting by thanking those attending and emphasizing that there has been no commitment to anything. He explained that while individual members of both the BoCC and Town Council had been individually briefed on the project, Monday’s presentation was the first time they were all seeing the whole project presentation.
“It’s more than you can swallow in one sitting, Mann said. “There will be many opportunities at both the Town Council and County Commission to comment. Thank you for coming and caring about your community.”
County Commissioner Larry Kiker briefly recounted previous developers’ plans for downtown Fort Myers Beach and referred to this plan as “#7.” He went on to remind the audience of three basic challenges Fort Myers Beach faces.
“We have a traffic issue on Fort Myers Beach. We don’t have enough parking and we have public safety problems.”
He then turned the microphone over to Tom Torgerson to introduce his team of advisors and give an overview of the project. And it’s a big project, as Mann said, tough to get your head around in one hearing. Beach residents will be able to attend a second presentation on Monday, December 14 at 5:30pm at Chapel by the Sea. Public comment will be taken at that meeting.
The project scale is enormous, the concept bold. Repeatedly stressed by both the developers and public officials was the fact that they were showing a concept that is subject to change as it works its way through county and town hearings and solicits public comments from island residents.
Emphasizing the public benefit portion of the project, Torgerson explained that the project would improve traffic flow by relocating Estero Blvd., adding a roundabout and a “fast ramp” into a parking structure that could hold 1500 cars. It would separate vehicles from pedestrians and bicycles, enhancing safety. A seawall topped by a boardwalk would provide flood protection allowing development at ground level and include 10 beach accesses, including three wide enough for emergency vehicles and beach vendors.
One of the most critical public benefits mentioned was the increased tax income for the state, county and local taxing districts with over $83 million in increased taxes expected in the first 10 years. The big picture financial impact for the first 10 years of the project, including direct, indirect and induced impacts totals $1.5 billion according to developers.
But what will generate those kinds of numbers?
The four hotels will include 562 rooms. Those hotels are most likely to be a 176 unit Hilton Resort with an adjacent 86-room Hampton Inn, a 100 unit Marriott AC Resort and a 200-room Holiday Inn.
There are nine projected restaurants forecast plus retail spaces, a fitness center and a spa, conference center and parking ramp. Project estimates include 500 new jobs.
Along the beachfront, a seawall is planned with a boardwalk that will stretch for almost a ½ mile with ten beach access points and public restrooms along it.
The plan includes property that Grand Resorts FMB now owns, plus land that the Town owns (Canal Street access) and land that Lee County owns (Seafarer’s Mall and Crescent Beach Family Park).
Welcoming the opportunity to reveal this project and gather the community’s input, Torgerson told the crowd that he is a community-minded person with both his and his partner’s roots being in small towns.
“This is a concept,” Torgerson said, “we expect a lot of public input and a lot of work ahead to mold it into something that can become reality.”
John Hafner of Architectural Concepts spoke of the project as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity and introduced the artists rendering of a “conceptual design” that he explained was a starting point only.
Showing a series of drawings that depict what the finished concept could be like, he included a series of before and after shots, emphasizing one common Islander worry, the view from the bridge. The before and after views plus project renderings are available online at grandresortsfmb.com.
Tom Flick of the Compass Group discussed infrastructure improvements and how they addressed the Town’s Comp Plan with increased protection of infrastructure, optimized business growth at grade, significant traffic improvements, improved pedestrian circulation and safety among others. He added that the plan also addresses several goals of the Town’s recent Downtown Ad Hoc Committee.
Russell Schropp of Henderson Franklin speaking on behalf of the developers, asked for a 3-way agreement to create a basic understanding of the process to be followed. He explained that approval of this agreement would not commit any entity to any development, but it would allow them to proceed with permitting applications.
“Implementation would be subject to a full review as required by law. The Development Agreement would terminate with no commitment or obligation if the proposed project fails to obtain the necessary approvals.”
Torgerson closed the presentation repeating that this is a once in a lifetime chance to address traffic, parking, pedestrian safety and at grade development.
“The timing is right. We have not just contracted the land; we have bought and paid for it. The public needs have persisted and been here for a long time. We feel the timing is right.
“Grand Resorts is committed to you, the Town and County. You may have noticed the theme: ‘Win + Win + Win = Great Outcomes’ on our slides. At TPI Hospitality-that is just engrained into our culture. If there is a loser in the mix, nobody wins because eventually problems percolate up. Our commitment to you, if you should choose to go down that path is to work with you and staff to get a Win + Win + Win to get a Great Outcome.”
Torgerson and his team then took questions from the Town Council and BoCC.
Commission Chairman Frank Mann went first, reminding everyone that no votes would occur until public input was heard.
“This is more than anyone can swallow in one setting. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix something that people have been complaining about since I first took office over 40 years ago – traffic on Estero Boulevard – and we’ve never had a group come before us like this with all the properties in place with which to do it. I commend Commissioner Kiker’s leadership on this, and it looks like it will be much safer and much prettier. However, as a steward of property owned by the people of Lee County, I can tell you it must be better than the status quo.”
Fort Myers Beach Mayor Anita Cereceda agreed, saying that this will be a lengthy process with many opportunities for public input.
“I do believe this team is genuinely interested in hearing our concerns,” she said. “I would suggest that we hold a workshop on this followed by placing it on a council agenda.”
Councilman Alan Mandel asked if financing for the project is in place, and Torgerson replied that $38 million of the estimated $250 million is already ‘out the door’, with another $35 million currently financed.
Commissioner Brian Hamman said he could see a lot of young families like his coming to the beach to enjoy the new development.
“I like that we’re getting private money to pay for public use,” he said. “I have two concerns – who will pay for the roundabout? And I would like to see this made less urban and more like the atmosphere of Fort Myers Beach.”
Commissioner Larry Kiker told him that – since the state owns the bridge and Estero Boulevard up to the traffic light – that they would pay for the roundabout. He then asked how long it would take FEMA to approve the change to a different flood zone.
“All modeling gets submitted to them by the New Year, so about 120 days after that,” Torgerson replied. “Once the seawall is constructed, all properties landward of it will see their flood zoning change too – meaning those property owners will be able to build at-grade and not have to go up.”
Councilwoman Summer Stockton asked how they came up with 500+ hotel units and still adhered to the Town’s Comprehensive Plan. Torgerson said that since they are going to be rezoning to Commercial, they are asking to use the part of the Comp Plan that applies to that designation because it allows for a higher floor to area ratio than residential.
“What happens if you don’t get the needed approvals? Do you have a back-up plan?” Stockton continued.
“We are very optimistic that all of this will be permitted,” Torgerson said. “To be honest, there is no back-up plan.”
Councilwoman Rexann Hosafros urged everyone ‘to take a step back’.
“I agree that this is a unique opportunity, and I’m impressed with this group’s motivations,” she said. “I look forward to working on whatever problems we have.”
After the meeting, we spoke with several Island residents, many of whom expressed cautious optimism about the project.
“There were a significant amount of ‘oh s**t’ moments – surrender that much publicly owned property?” said San Carlos Island resident Charlie Whitehead. “Some of the stuff they were talking about should have been done 30 years ago. There were some good things in there, however.”
Karen Swanbeck of Keller-Williams Realty said she was very interested in how they were going to get FEMA approval for a seawall, and Dean Kerkesner, owner of Rebel Water Sports in Time Square, commented that cyclists would not be able to use the boardwalk, as it will not be wide enough.
Former Mayor Ray Murphy liked the project saying it would solve a lot of the Town’s problems.
“I know a lot of people are concerned about losing Crescent Beach Park, but I always knew when the county bought it that it would be only temporary,” he said. “I would think that they would eliminate parking at Lynn Hall and make that a true beach park since they’ll have the parking garage.”
Beachfront property owner Nancy Lynn Van Oyen loved what she heard, saying she gives the project ‘three yesses’.
Community Resources Advisory Board (CRAB) Chair Miffie Greer commented, “It’s a big change, but I’m impressed.”
Kelly Leary, Friends of the Mound House volunteer, disagreed.
“How tall are the buildings going to be?” she said. “I want to see it in 3-D. They make it sound all great, but I’m not convinced.”
Joanne Shamp, Vice-Chair of the Local Planning Agency (LPA), said this project ‘will forever change our small town community.”
“Our Comp Plan and Land Development Code are based on designs of a human scale,” she told us. “This massive development far exceeds the scope of that.”
Local business owner Doug Speirn-Smith said he was pretty discouraged by what he saw.
“It’s certainly a scene changer, but the scale of it is not appropriate for that location,” he told us. “The seawall, parking, roundabout – that could all be done without that much building…plus – this seems like a done deal, like our council and commissioners are already committed to the idea. I don’t see how that’s right.”
Commissioner Larry Kiker assured us that none of this is set in stone and encouraged everyone to come to the first public input meeting on Monday, December 14th at Chapel By the Sea from 5:30-7:30pm.
“The task is to balance controversy with opportunity,” he said. “Public input is very important and December 14th is the beginning of it. My biggest concern is the seawall, which is being built not so much to prevent flooding but to prevent the velocity of the waves – that’s what causes all the damage in a storm. If they are able to get FEMA to approve that and change the flood zone designation for all properties landward of it – all the way to the back bay – think of what that could mean for the rest of the island and our troubles with flood insurance?”
Keri Hendry Weeg
- Beachfront view of proposed downtown concept.
- The Fort Myers Beach Town Council and Lee County Board of County Commissioners listen to the Grand Resorts FMB Proposal.
- Proposed Traffic Flow