One Margaritaville Lawsuit Dropped
Final Roadblock in Judge’s Hands
Early on Friday afternoon, June 28, TPI-FMB spokesperson John Gucciardo updated The Island Sand Paper on the two lawsuits from Town resident Chris Patton that have put the Margaritaville Resort construction at the base of the Matanzas Pass Bridge on hold for eleven months.
“The first legal case is a Writ of Certiorari,” Gucciardo explained. “This is a court process that seeks a judicial review of a decision from a lower court or administrative agency; in this case, the Town, claiming it did not have the right to approve the Margaritaville project. We expect this decision in the very near future. The other is the Civil Action case that will most likely come to trial in November. Unfortunately, I do not see any way around that, as they do not want us to build the resort and we feel we have every right to, based on two unanimous Town Council votes and the Local Planning Agency majority decision, so there is no room for compromise.”
Forty-eight hours later, everything had changed, with the Town announcing that Patton dropped her Civil Action against the Town! So what happened? “You have to ask the plaintiff,” said an obviously happy Gucciardo! “We were ready to proceed with the Town over the Civil Trial and felt we were up to the challenge, but dropping it is the much preferred alternative. With the Writ of Certiorari already on the judge’s desk, in which we anticipate a favorable outcome, Margaritaville can move ahead in a much more rapid fashion than we hoped just a few days ago, because it is possible for a Civil Case and appeal to drag out as much as 18 months. Now groundbreaking may be as soon as the start of 2020, so this chops anywhere from 9 months to one year off the start of construction!”
Attempts to reach Patton’s attorney, Ralf Brookes, to see what, if any, effect the recently signed Florida law (HB 7103) that calls for those who challenge a local government’s Comprehensive Plan and lose to pay the government’s legal costs, were unsuccessful.
Gucciardo stated that “a former Town Attorney, who works the case for the Town, first indicated to Mayor Anita Cereceda that the plaintiff may drop the Civil Suit, and the Mayor reached out to TPI Hospitality’s Tom Torgerson and myself with that news that we were quickly able to confirm. All this happened early on Sunday afternoon, June 30, around 12:30 p.m., and that is a very unusual day and time to receive the news about a legal matter! Now TPI will adjust the construction schedule to push for the earliest possible groundbreaking, and we feel in a very short time, we will be ready to go.”
Moving Forward Together
Mayor Cereceda learned the news from a text message from former Town Co-Counsel John Turner, who still handles the Civil Case for Fort Myers Beach, “with John saying Chris Patton voluntarily withdrew without prejudice her Civil Case challenging the Town’s Comprehensive Plan and Council’s two unanimous votes to approve the Margaritaville Resort. I immediately telephoned Tom Torgerson and he couldn’t speak! He and his wife Mari were getting ready to board an airplane to Minnesota and he became very emotional, in a combination of relief and joy and gratitude that this part of the process is over! They quickly changed their travel plans and returned to their Fort Myers Beach home. It is never over until it is over, of course, but it feels like now we are all in a new phase and that the light at the end of the tunnel is actually a light and not another train!”
Recently, Mayor Cereceda appeared to take on a “peacemaker” role with the main players on both sides of the Margaritaville conflict, to find a reasonable solution. “My conversations, especially with Robert Conidaris of the Lani Kai Island Resort, were extremely positive, though I don’t know how much influence he or I had in this decision, nor do I know Chris Patton’s intention or motivation in dropping her civil suit, but this is a sigh of relief, so I will be forever grateful to all of them.”
Another person she congratulated was Gucciardo, the Town’s first Deputy Town Manager when Cereceda became the original Fort Myers Beach Mayor on December 31, 1995. “I told John it was my great privilege to be a Council member or Mayor during some of the Town’s most significant achievements, like how I fondly remember like it was yesterday the day we adopted the Comprehensive Plan! Two other enormous days were when Council unanimously approved the Margaritaville Resort Comprehensive Planned Development, and now today, as this is a huge day of reconciliation for the Town, in my mind, to give the community hope now that we can finally all move forward together.”
15 Years & Counting
For a project yet to turn its first shovelful of dirt, it seems like the proposed TPI-FMB Resort, in the downtown area devastated by Hurricane Charley on Friday the 13th of August 2004 that almost unbelievably remains without redevelopment today after almost 15 years, has been in our collective Fort Myers Beach conscience forever, though the actual time length is roughly just four years.
After its initial concept that island residents overwhelmingly disliked as too big, TPI Hospitality Inc. from Minnesota and its former principal owner, Fort Myers Beach resident Tom Torgerson, went back to the drawing board, hosting numerous public meetings and focus groups, to formulate a scaled-back version the community found more appealing. TPI-FMB received its first official public hearing, when, on February 13, 2018, the Town’s LPA approved the concept by a 5 – 2 vote, moving it forward to Town Council for the final determination. That Council hosted two sets of public meetings and unanimously approved two separate TPI-FMB votes, first on April 10, 2018, then again roughly six weeks later on May 21, 2018.
Shortly thereafter, TPI-FMB announced its branding and marketing partner, transforming its title to The Margaritaville Resort Fort Myers Beach. Not long after, however, Patton, with legal funding assistance from Robert Conidaris, owner of the Lani Kai Island Resort, filed two lawsuits on August 8, 2018, claiming Council either did not have the right or exceeded its authority to approve Margaritaville, causing a construction delay of over one year.
The Margaritaville Resort Fort Myers Beach approved by council includes 254 rooms, with 224 on the bay side of Estero Boulevard and 30 on the beach side, with a beach side waterpark, two restaurants, a ballroom, spa, ground floor parking and related amenities, including a publicly accessible pedestrian walkover near Estero Blvd & Crescent Street.
Writ & Civil Case
Gucciardo called these legal delays “incredibly frustrating! We hoped to already be under construction, as we felt we did everything necessary to acquire the proper Town approval, when you consider the energy we placed in the community-wide vetting process we conducted for the residents, even before coming to the LPA, then Council. People tell us they really like the design, so it was unfortunate we could not break ground like we planned last January. Had we not put all that energy into community outreach, to come up with a product the vast majority of islanders are happy with, then maybe it might not feel so frustrating.”
Gucciardo said that almost all beach businesses view Margaritaville “as a benefit and not a detriment, with many positives for the entire community, as it will excite and stimulate the island economy. Different businesses of course have different demographics, so each must research how they can best utilize our customers.”
If the remaining lawsuit does shortly conclude in TPI’s favor, “we are still a few months from turning dirt,” explained Gucciardo. “Having said that, we are doing everything we can to ensure that once they are over, we can break ground quickly. By that, I mean we are working through the Town permit and approval process, with items like signage and turtle lighting issues that we are resolving, with everything else that is necessary. The Town is extraordinarily helpful, and we’ve received nothing but positive feedback from residents.”
Gucciardo explained that the Margaritaville brand will be exclusive and highly visible throughout the project: “The main resort building will include the St. Somewhere Spa with the Compass Rose Ballroom! The main terrace features the License to Chill Bar & Coconut Telegraph Coffee Shop. Across the street will be the Fins Up Beach Club that includes the Five O’clock Somewhere Bar and Salty Sam Rim Bar. The freestanding building will have the Landshark Bar & Grill Bar at ground level, with the JWB Restaurant on the 2nd Floor. The Margaritaville theme trickles down to everything, like menu items.”
Due to this exclusive branding agreement, Margaritaville is a crucial partner, so what has TPI heard from them about the delay? “Margaritaville has been very understanding about our circumstances,” Gucciardo related. “They recently had an extensive period of inaction, for example, with the Margaritaville project in Hollywood, Florida, so they get it, as it is not unique in this business to have a delay.”
Beaches Gateway Village
TPI Hospitality has an off-island component it hopes to construct in conjunction with Margaritaville, entitled Beaches Gateway Village. “We actually made our preliminary submissions to Lee County in late June, but have yet to receive back their written Staff comments, so the process is underway and we anticipate swift and smooth approval. We discussed all project components with Lee County Staff, with the off-island resort being a Homewood Suites By Hilton brand, along with the 75-space overflow parking lot we agreed to provide the Town for Margaritaville patrons. To this point, we have only had limited contact with our new neighbors but it has all been positive, especially from the nearby RV Park and church. We anticipate the Homewood will be six stories with 133 suites.”
John added that “unfortunately, the third part of our original plan, to construct affordable workplace housing not only for us but other island businesses, to better recruit and retain employees, is proving more difficult. The original impetus for the beach employee residential housing component grew out of our conversations with the local business community that included hoteliers, bars, restaurants and retailers, stating that one of their toughest challenges is keeping quality employees who, due to their financial situation, must travel to their beach jobs from a good distance away, so we hoped to provide an affordable alternative, to fill that gap in the housing stock.”
To meet the necessary price point for beach tourism employees, TPI envisioned 150 communal living concept rental units. “These would share a kitchen and living room,” John offered, “with four lock-off bedrooms with private baths, meaning these 150 units would be home to 600 people, and that is what really drops the rental price, but this did not sit well with the tourism industry and their employees, as they do not favor dormitory-style housing. We examined switching back to the more typical one- and two-bedroom rental units, but once you do that, the price increases significantly, defeating the original purpose, so how does that help a busboy or server?”
Despite this quandary, Gucciardo stated, “Tom Torgerson in particular remains very determined to build an employee housing community at the below-market rental rate, to meet that need if at all possible, to the extent he is now actually considering turning this part of the project over to other entities that have more experience with these developments and may know how to do it better than us, so that is where we are in that decision-making process right now. We plan to construct Margaritaville and Homewood Suites at the same time, as that just makes sense in assembling all the necessary construction crews and equipment.”
In A Heartbeat!
Weighing everything the TPI Team knows up to this point, including residents strongly disliking the initial design, all the public meetings and focus groups, the LPA and Town Council process, and the lawsuits and lengthy delays, if they could rewind the clock back four years, would TPI still pursue Margaritaville today?
“I can’t speak for the entire TPI network,” concluded Gucciardo, “but I can tell you without reservation that Tom Torgerson constantly reminds himself and all of us of the great enthusiasm, support and general feeling of well-being that the Fort Myers Beach community shows us, from the end of the Town approval process through today, and he reminds himself and us that Margaritaville will be a great benefit to the Fort Myers Beach community. Tom would do it again in a heartbeat!”
By Gary Mooney