Last week, the Sand Paper published a letter from developer Tom Torgerson about an ‘alternate development plan’ for the properties he owns along Estero Boulevard. In the letter, which was sent to all members of Town Council along with Interim Town Manager Jim Steele, Torgerson indicates he has had discussions with members of the Department of Transportation and Lee County staff about a possible ‘land swap’ of parts of the property formerly known as Seafarer’s Mall (now owned by Lee County) and Torgerson-owned Ocean Jewel property and parking area adjacent to the Lighthouse Resort for the purpose of rerouting Estero Boulevard, or some other road improvements designed to alleviate the Town’s traffic issues at some point in the future. The Town and the County have actually been going back and forth over what to do with that property for six years, with traffic being the biggest issue that all parties seem to agree on.
Built by Fran and Tom Myers in the 1980’s, the Seafarer’s Mall was a downtown staple for many years – at times drawing more people than neighboring Times Square – but fell into disrepair after Hurricane Charley in 2004. Before Charley, Seafarer’s Mall bustled with activity, drawing visitors from hotels across the street, where the county park now sits. Readers may remember how people sat at the picnic tables outside of Dusseldorf’s, shopped at the upstairs boutiques or danced the night away at Cabasca’s and Tradewinds. By 2010, the bank had foreclosed on the property and this prominent building in the heart of our downtown area stood mostly empty, going completely dark in July 2010, when Jimmy B’s closed its doors for the final time.
County Buys Seafarers
On August 10, 2010, the County purchased a total of 2.92 acres of property, which included the site of the present Crescent Beach Family Park and the Seafarer’s property. The purchase price for both was $5.6 million, money that came from the TDC’s Beaches and Shorelines fund. $900,000 of that paid for Seafarer’s.
At the time of the county’s purchase, there were BoCC reservations about using TDC funds to pay for the Seafarer’s property, since – per state statute – the only thing it could be used for is a parking lot for Crescent Beach Park.
“If the Board wants to use TDC funds, and we cannot use the site where the building is for parking, the Board will have to decide what to do with building and at that time County would need to reimburse the TDC for $900,000 for the building,” said County Lands’ Karen McGuire in 2010.
In October 2010, Town Council discussed the possibility of buying it from the County and sent them a letter asking for negotiations. This was repeated in April of 2011, when the same Council sent the Board of Lee County Commissioners (BoCC) another letter asking for a transfer of the property to the Town “with the condition that the Town will meet the conditions of the TDC funding by tearing down the building and using the property as a parking lot for the county-owned park across the street”. Later that month, despite efforts to convince the County to turn over Seafarers to the town, the commissioners voted instead to maintain ownership and demolished the building in June of that year.
“Everyone involved would be better served by local control of that property,” Kiker said in 2011. “Fixing the bottleneck at Seafarer’s is vital to the future of our town. We’ll use the revenues raised from the parking lot to pay the county back.”
In April of 2012, then-Commissioner Ray Judah, told us that the county wanted to use the property as part of a plan to reroute Estero Boulevard.
Judah gave a brief background of how the county had gained ownership of the site, explaining that, when they initially approached the seller about acquiring the beach property they were informed that the two properties were a package deal and that the county must buy them both.
“Getting that piece of the beach was so important to us that we agreed to purchase the Seafarer’s property, too,” he told us. “But the only way we could justify using TDC funding is if we used that site as an ancillary use to the beach property – such as an at-grade parking lot. If we – or the Town or anyone who bought that property – did something else with the property they would have to pay the TDC back the $900,000. Even if the county put up a parking garage instead of an at-grade lot, we’d have to pay for it ourselves.” But the parking lot, Judah told us then, was only the county’s short-term plan for the property.
“Long-term, we’d like to acquire all the properties around Seafarer’s with the idea of ultimately rerouting Estero Boulevard,” he said. “But there are several different property owners in that area and the county does not have the money for that right now. Plus, who’s to say that the owners would even be willing to sell?”
Judah lost his re-election bid to Kiker later that year. On April 16, 2013, The Board of Lee County Commissioners voted to reimburse the Tourist Development Council (TDC) the $900,000 spent to purchase the Seafarer’s property in 2010.
Before the commissioners began their discussion, they listened to comments from then Mayor Alan Mandel – who urged the Board to ensure that the Town be given a leadership role in determining the fate of the property.
“I am coming before you asking you to do that as we discussed it at our joint meeting last month,” he said. “We are also interested in working with you on developing a public/private partnership to purchase more property on that site to use in helping us alleviate our traffic issues.”
Kiker, then Vice-Chair of the Lee County Commission, expressed frustration that it was taking so long to move forward.
“This has been an issue since the beginning, because in anyone’s estimation this is an eyesore for the Town,” he said in 2013. “The reason we came here when I was Mayor and asked the county to work with us is because we thought it could help with our traffic,” Kiker said. “I think the board should recognize the Town to lead the direction.”
In February 2014, the Sand Paper asked the candidates vying for the three council seats in the March 2014 election to explain their position on the Town’s involvement in any future Seafarer’s site plan.
Summer Stockton suggested forming an ad hoc committee to come up with possible solutions – so long as they follow the Land Development Code and the Comprehensive Plan – that may include the Town purchasing the property and/or beautifying it at the very least. Rexann Hosafros suggested a public/private partnership that would include a positive impact on traffic flow. Anita Cereceda did not respond.
Grand Resorts Proposal
In November 2015, Torgerson included both Seafarer’s and Crescent Beach Park in his Grand Resorts proposal, which was never submitted to either the Town or the county, but shared in public meetings. In that proposal, Torgerson detailed how he’d purchased the surrounding property and intended to use the entire parcel on that side of Estero Blvd. for a parking garage, shops and the rerouting of Estero Boulevard. The proposal was later withdrawn in the midst of strong opposition, and the fate of Seafarer’s remains unclear.
Alternate Plan in Works
According to Torgerson’s July 7th letter to Town Council, he would like to discuss a possible land swap with the county that would give the county two pieces of land closer to the base of the bridge and free up the Seafarer’s lot for development as it sits adjacent to Helmerich Plaza, which he owns. Both the County and Torgerson are asking for some indication from the Town that they are open to considering the concept of a county/Torgerson land swap, that it has some merit for discussion before proceeding.
The alternate plan under design development would not include the elements that had drawn the most criticism in the first plan. The new plan, according to Torgerson, will not involve Crescent Beach Park, re-routing of Estero Blvd or a parking garage. It will also not include a Coastal Protection System or require a Comprehensive Plan Amendment. The plan does include a “building height to a 40’ habitable vertical envelope.”
Up to Council
When we spoke with Commissioner Kiker this week, he emphatically stated that anything done with the property would have to follow the direction of Town Council, and that – as far as he was concerned – any proposal should contain the following characteristics: a way to fix traffic, parking and safety for pedestrians and cyclists.
Town Council meets next on August 8th at 10am for a Work Session and at 2pm for a Council Meeting.
Keri Hendry Weeg
Caption: Current view of Seafarer’s location, currently being used by construction crews involved in the Estero Blvd. reconstruction. Photo by Sarah List.