Island Hoteliers Weigh In on TPI Proposal

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“I’m Your Density!”

“I’m your density” was a malapropism made famous by George McFly in “Back to The Future,” when he first spoke to the girl who would one day be his wife! But “I’m your density” takes on a completely different meaning to the Fort Myers Beach community, concerning the long-awaited application by TPI Hospitality over its recently-submitted Downtown redevelopment plan.

The proposed project encompasses almost 6 acres from the base of the Matanzas Pass Bridge to the Gulf of Mexico, including a resort hotel, waterpark beach club, restaurants, small retail store, conference meeting rooms, arcade, and two elevated pedestrian bridges. The most controversial element, however, seems to be density, as its requested 292 rooms are over the allowed residential amount. TPI asks that the Town provide it a density deviation by allowing guest unit calculations based on a Commercial Floor Area Ratio in square feet, with traffic and stormwater impacts considered, rather than over residential property metrics.

Traffic backs up on Matanzas Pass Bridge. Photo by M. Layfield

Several Fort Myers Beach hoteliers offered their opinions of the project and its density dilemma recently when contacted by the Island Sand Paper. Jacki Liszak, Executive Director of The Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce as well as co-owner of the Sea Gypsy Inn at 1698 Estero Boulevard, brings a unique perspective as a tourism industry leader as well as an island hotelier. “I am very excited to study the plan in-depth, so we can move forward with a concept that benefits our residents, businesses and visitors. As far as the density goes, my understanding is the way they calculate it is allowable under the regulations we have in place, so I am eager to see how that works.”

A Win-Win For Everyone

Liszak feels that “through the proper synergy, we will come up with a solution that will be a win-win for everyone, because renovating those properties and downtown is the right thing to do to create a better future for the island, and I am excited that our community appears to be embracing this concept. TPI spent tens of thousands of dollars getting public input and revising its plan, showing it is willing to listen and wants to be a good neighbor, to properly beautify the entrance to our island. From what I know, I would be proud to take my Sea Gypsy Inn guests there for dinner and to enjoy the waterpark and have them experience a revitalized downtown. I don’t want to break any rules, but I hope we don’t let this opportunity pass us by.”

“I am not sure how much over density TPI actually is,” said Roland Weinmann, co-owner of the Myerside Resort at 145 School Street, “but I bet it is the 30 rooms on the beach side that puts them over the top. As a beach hotelier and island property owner, I don’t have a problem with this plan, as I don’t see how those extra rooms will make a difference. TPI’s concept has many good points, and it really shouldn’t bring that much more traffic onto Fort Myers Beach, as their guests will park right there, and leaving the island should be easy because they are next to the Matanzas Pass Bridge. When our guests arrive, they tend to park their car once and walk the rest of the time, and I think that would be true of theirs as well, especially there, as they are in the middle of where people want to be, with Times Square, the beach, pier and Old San Carlos Boulevard.”

Weinmann admits upfront “I was always for TPI because for too long we needed to redevelop Downtown. I am active in the Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce, and used to volunteer weekly in the Roxie at Times Square, and one of the biggest questions I would receive was where do we go and what is there to do now that my day on the beach is done; they were looking for their next ‘Oh Wow’ experience so they wouldn’t have to leave the island and go somewhere else. If this comes through, we can recommend the waterpark, as people seem to find that exciting. It is always so interesting to listen to the general public and visitors.”

Create a New Product

This is similar to the opinion of Council member and Fort Myers Beach business owner Anita Cereceda, who readily concedes, “I have been for Downtown redevelopment all along, and that is no secret. To be successful in business, you just can’t keep doing the same-old, same-old, not matter how good your product; you always need to come up with something new to bring people back, and make a buzz for those who have yet to visit. It has been a long time since Fort Myers Beach created a new product, and TPI, especially with the waterpark, has the potential to do just that.”

Of course, not every opinion is universal, sometimes not even in the same business or household! Beverley Milligan is the Executive Director of the Estero Island Taxpayers Association as well as co-owner of the Myerside Resort with Weinmann. “I do not have a problem with density or the number of rooms TPI will have, because at the high point of season people keep coming and we will never have enough spaces for all of them.”

TPI rendering of water park view from Estero Blvd. All renderings are courtesy of TPI Hospitality.

Her worry is an unusual one: “The number of rooms in the latest proposal is now so few that TPI changed their plan and policy concerning the waterpark. With the second option, TPI had a pool and recreation outlets for their guests on the bay side, meaning everyone, including their guests, paid a separate fee for the waterpark, but now that they scaled back their room request, their guests can use the waterpark as part of their resort package. Myerside is a boutique hotel and cannot compete with that, so I actually favor giving TPI more rooms to allow a level playing field with the rest of us. I also liked that the middle concept incorporated the former Seafarer’s property owned by Lee County, as I don’t want to see that end up being just a waste of precious space.”

Milligan’s other concern is in respect to the process: “Our current Town Council will be together for the next two years, and it is no secret several ran and won under a ‘No Development’ policy. I hope they do not just sit back for the next two years, or throw so many procedural roadblocks in the way that they drag it out until the next Council election. Town Council must focus on this and make it a priority, with a sound but reasonable deadline, regardless of the final result, so we can have a decision on how to move forward.”

No Special Favors

To Tim Malbon, Managing General Partner and owner of the Best Western Plus Beach Resort at 684 Estero Boulevard, at the island’s north end, a level playing field is the key as well, but in a different respect than Milligan’s: “TPI needs to stay within the Comprehensive Plan, just like everybody else, and it is up to the Town to make sure they do. I actually think it is a great plan, but TPI cannot get any special favors; the Town must treat them like the rest of us, and that means abiding by the regulations.”

Following 2004’s Hurricane Charley, the Best Western Plus was awarded a $630,000 FEMA grant to renovate the resort and relocate everything from the ground floor to a newly constructed 6th floor. It lost the FEMA grant when town council enforced the Comprehensive Plan’s height restriction, preventing owners from building the 6th floor.

“The Town has a very good Comp Plan,” says Bill Waichulis, general manager of the Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina at 275 Estero Boulevard. “As such, I don’t see how all the new traffic created by TPI will improve our parking problems, especially in that area right off the bridge. No one wants to see that worsen, and TPI’s interpretation of how it falls under the Comp Plan definition for density will not help solve that. My understanding is that their waterpark they want to build will be open to the public, so where do those people park? More density means more traffic.”

Waichulis has a broader issue, “If TPI receives additional density, that will open the floodgates for everyone else on the island to stretch their concepts to fit the new normal rather than adhering to the Comp Plan as is. TPI is going in the right direction, but what they want, though smaller, is still not allowed for there. I understand they have the right to construct a new hotel and that is great, but what they are asking has to be in the Comp Plan, and I don’t see how this meshes with that.”

Ellis Etter, General Manager of the Wyndham Garden Fort Myers Beach at 6890 Estero Boulevard, brings a south island perspective. “My concern like everyone is parking. Do they have enough for their rooms and restaurants and waterpark and other amenities? There never seems to be enough, so will this alleviate congestion or create more of a traffic and parking nightmare? It sounds like a great plan to me and can be a nice attraction for the beach, and it will certainly clean up that area so when you come over the bridge you get a better first impression of the island rather than rundown buildings or a construction storage site. That neighborhood, especially across from Crescent Beach Family Park and in the downtown, is certainly due for a makeover.”

The Island Sand Paper made several attempts to contact other island hoteliers, but did not receive a response by deadline.

Town staff is currently reviewing the TPI application, before it moves to the Local Planning Agency, then on to Town Council for the full public vetting process and eventually the final determination.

 

Gary Mooney