Guest Commentary: Downtown Plan Hits the Mark


More than a year ago, developer Tom Torgerson blew into town like a hurricane, unveiling his proposed “Grand Resorts” plan to completely re-do our downtown. We were told that the plan would “blow our minds.” It did, but not in the way Torgerson hoped for. It was so far over the top that a total re-write of our Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code would have been necessary. Yet somebody, somewhere (I have a pretty good idea who), assured him he would be able to pull it off.

He totally underestimated the amount of blowback his proposal would provoke. The public outcry was loud and long and two seats in a Town Council election went to the candidates who most strongly opposed the proposal.

Determined to come up with something that the town would embrace, he invited seven of the plan’s most vocal critics, of which I was one, to form a focus group to help him formulate “Plan B.” Some people in town saw it as his way of buying off or otherwise co-opting the opposition into “going over to the Dark Side.” It was anything but that. The folks in the group were the most unlikely people to be bought off.

Using diplomatic terms, the meetings were “frank and direct.” After each meeting, his team came back with changes and in a couple of instances, completely new ideas. Each time, the plan came closer to being what the group felt could reasonably be accepted. However, everyone understood that ultimately, we weren’t the ones who would say “yea or nay.” That job remains with the Council.

Last month, what by then was probably “Plan D.5” evolved. All the “deal-breakers” of the original proposal were gone. Crescent Beach Park remains untouched. There is no seawall/coastal protection system. There is no tunnel or canyon created by any building. Traffic flow on the Boulevard is unchanged. Four hotels, one of which was seven stories high, are now one hotel, all on the Bay side of the Boulevard and a couple of feet below the code requirements of three stories and forty feet high. Parking for the hotel is at ground level since the building has to be elevated to meet FEMA standards. The hotel design is reminiscent of waterfront places in Key West.

On the Gulf side is a “Beach Club” which is not an amenity for the hotel, but will be a paid (cover charge) venue for everyone. There was talk of offering a discounted rate to locals, which I strongly encourage. It will have a restaurant and two bars, entertainment, cabanas, etc. (They first wanted to call it an “adult” venue, but we convinced them that this title suggested strippers – definitely not part of the plan.) There is another pool inside the hotel compound for their guests, which will have all the kiddie stuff. A relocated Canal Street will be offered to the town, on which as many as 25 parking meters could be placed, generating revenue for the town. There will be public beach accesses on both sides of the venue.

Pulling this off is going to require some cooperation between the town and county governments, a feat which seems to have become more difficult recently. It’s also going to need just two deviations from the code. Because of the zone the whole thing is in, there is a provision for some flexibility in how the density is calculated. This is going to come down to how broadly the LPA and Council wish to interpret the code.

In today’s society, getting more than half the people to agree on anything seems nearly impossible. (Election, anybody?) Here on the beach, I’d be willing to bet that at least 95 percent of the residents do agree that something needs to go into this currently unsightly, barren space. Throughout this whole process, I’ve continually asked, “And how does this make my life better?” The beach venue, restaurant and bars; some parking revenue for the town and putting something a hell of a lot more attractive than unoccupied, decaying buildings and vacant lots answer that for me.

The original proposal would have made that area “Miami Beach South-Beach beachy. The current plan and building design, in my mind at least, still keeps the place Fort Myers Beach beachy. I’m ready to endorse it and I encourage the Council to work with Torgerson and the County, iron out any logistical glitches and make it happen.

This is all strictly my opinion. Others in the group may or may not agree with any or all of it and I’m sure will make their own feelings known.

Jay Light
Fort Myers Beach