Downtown – What We Know Now

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We at the Sand Paper often know a lot more than we can print and that has been especially true in the case of downtown development. We’ve been hearing about the project for a long time. We’ve watched as the block of property owned by Grand Resort Fort Myers Beach has grown larger and the rumors of what be built on that property swirl. For an overview, take a look at the map on the next page. The map shows the property now owned by Grand Resort outlined in red. The properties outlined in blue are owned by Lee County.

We believe that Islanders deserve more information than they’ve been given on this subject, particularly as there is county-owned property in the mix, and we have been patiently waiting and politely asking for more information for our readers. And getting bupkis, which is just to the right of nada.

First the project would be revealed October 19th. Then by the end of October. This week, Commissioner Kiker told us the project would be unveiled in a joint County/Town session in late November.

We suspect that the delay is not a result of the developer not being ready. Somehow we find it hard to believe that an investor who has spent $31.9M on real estate, does not have a pretty good idea of how he hopes to use it. It’s more likely a case of Town vs. County and who is going to take credit or blame. There is clearly a turf war between the two and unless resolved, may be the biggest obstacle this development faces.

Islanders have waited long enough. Today we are sharing what we’ve heard about the project from several reliable sources. It’s a complex project and details may change. The project will have to clear the not-unsubstantial hurdles of the development process that will include public hearings, countless Town and County approvals and probably a bushel full of variances. With those caveats, we are comfortable sharing what we’ve learned to date with our readers.

Beginning seven months ago, an entity known as Grand Resort Fort Myers Beach began buying downtown properties. In March 2015, the block bounded by Canal Street, Estero Blvd and the Pierview Hotel was purchased for $6.1 Million. A week later, Helmerich Plaza and parcels on Fifth Street were purchased for $7.2M.

In May, Grand Resort purchased the Mermaid property for $4.5M, then in August, the last two parcels, Pierview Hotel ($10.9M) and property holding Salty Crab (formerly Nemo’s) ($3.2M) were purchased.

Add it all up and Grand Resort has already invested $31.9M in commercial property in downtown Fort Myers Beach. Grand Resort FMB is controlled by Tom Torgerson, CEO and Chairman of the Board of TPI Hospitality, formerly known as Torgerson Properties, Inc. TPI’s stable of properties includes 31 hotels, 10 restaurants and 4 conference centers, all in southern Minnesota, with the exception of 2 hotels in Southwest Florida, one of which is the Pierview. Torgerson sold the company to TPI employees in January 2015, but remains CEO and Chairman of the Willmar, Minnesota based company.

In the summer TPI newsletter, Torgerson wrote that TPI had “acquired enough property to develop multiple resort properties on the beach” in Fort Myers Beach.

‘On the beach,’ would seem to mean directly on the Gulf of Mexico. At this point, the only Gulf-front property owned by Grand Resort runs from Canal St. to the edge of Crescent Beach Family Park, not nearly enough frontage to build “multiple resorts.”

What we hear is that there are three nationally recognized multi-story hotel resort properties being considered, all with beach frontage planned.

Parking for the new properties will be in a ramp on the former Helmerich property, the shape of which would likely change if Estero Blvd is rerouted as expected to help alleviate traffic and pedestrian congestion. The bay side of the property is also expected to house a multi-use event center.

Along the waterfront, imagine a seawall with a public boardwalk atop it, beginning around Lynn Hall Park and continuing along the beach to at least the front of the new resorts. The seawall would allow new retail space at ground level and could benefit other properties as it may provide flood protection.

What about Crescent Park? Lee County owns it, it is directly adjacent to the property owned by Grand Resort. Where do you think those three hotels will go? This may explain why that park has never been developed into anything really useful. Looks like the Seafarer’s property, Crescent Park and Lynn Hall Park may all be involved somehow in a deal with the county. And we hear there’s a trade-off in the works – a major renovation of Lynn Hall Park, made possible by moving the current parking spaces to the new ramp.

Is this good or bad for our Town? We expect everyone to have their own opinion. We’ll share ours and encourage Islanders to share theirs as this project progresses.

We think a downtown development that brings better parking, safer pedestrian access, new resorts and thriving businesses to our Island is a good thing. There were hotels and businesses on that property before that were washed away by Hurricane Charley. Replacing them doesn’t seem like a bad thing.

We’re not crazy about the County trading away Gulf front park space, but we’ll reserve final judgement until we see the actual plans. Hopefully there’s a way to include some public access along that stretch of beach.

With so much still unknown about this development, we join Islanders in waiting for the official “reveal.” We expect and encourage Islanders to have their say on this, whether pro or con. But first, we hope our Town and County officials can get their act together so that Islanders can view the plan and be assured that there will be ample opportunity for public input.

Missy & Bob Layfield