Every so often someone barges into a community in full fury, and through sheer power forces change, regardless of government entities and review boards, ignorant of community traditions and immune to neighbor’s opinions.
That was Charley, on Friday the 13th of August 2004, and Fort Myers Beach, from that day forward, was never the same.
Grand Resorts – FMB is currently making a redevelopment proposal for the Times Square area, involving many of the same parcels permanently altered by Hurricane Charley, and some island residents are strongly opposed to the concept. A primary argument is that they love Fort Myers Beach just the way it is now and has always been. Often, however, things you cherish remain so only in the hazy images of memory and the fondness of the heart. As the Greek Philosopher Heraclitus said around 500 B.C., probably in response to complaints about new construction in Downtown Athens: “The only constant is change.”
My family first visited Fort Myers Beach in February 1988 and like many before and since, it was love at first sight, and I knew one day I would call Southwest Florida home. We sublet one of the top-floor beachfront units at the Surf Song Condominium that was next to a thick growth of foliage rumored to be either the future home of a island nature park or a McDonald’s. Five years later the tenant actually became the DiamondHead Beach Resort & Spa, the catalyst for another chain reaction of change – the founding of the town of Fort Myers Beach in 1995.
If you took a short walk north from the Surf Song in need of a deliciously-frozen Rum Runner, you soon reached the five-story Lani Kai, its current sixth-floor restaurant and tiki bar still years away. A bit further down but before the pier was one the beach’s most legendary bars, Jimmy B’s, with its traditional “Sunset Shooter” toast “to another day in paradise!”
Jimmy B’s was part of The Days Inn, one of four adjacent, practically adjoining hotels with around 300 combined rooms where Crescent Beach Family Park is today. Across from those and at the base of the Matanzas Pass Bridge were the terrific shops and restaurants of Seafarer’s Village that tourists, seasonals, and locals alike regularly packed, making it one of the island’s most popular and best-known locales.
Almost everyone still called Matanzas Pass “the new bridge” because it was less than 10 years since it replaced the old drawbridge that almost everyone still cursed, memories of three hour traffic jams while waiting for the fire department to throw ropes around the open span to pull it shut still fresh in their heads. Bridge traffic then emptied directly into our current strictly-pedestrian Times Square, meaning if you had an outdoor table at Plaka’s or Pete’s Time Out then, you got a complimentary side of automobile exhaust with your gyro or burger because the road was right on top of their patio seating.
Walk just a little more and there was the beginning concept of what would be Lynn Hall Memorial Park. This recreation parcel was essential because the island’s pristine north end was a possible location for a hotel and convention center, Bowditch Point Park not yet even a thought.
Room With a View
Lynn Hall Memorial Park reopened with the bathhouse that is there today in mid 1989, and the grimy street at the base of the bridge transformed into the beloved Times Square. The DiamondHead went up, the Town broke away on its own, and Bowditch Point Park grew from concept to reality. The Lani Kai expanded and life went on.
Then Charley blew ashore in 2004 and changed Times Square dramatically, without any plans or meetings or agendas or long-term solutions, proving Mother Nature the ultimate master planner.
Charley structurally destroyed The Days Inn as well as the Sand Man Hotel. It shifted the Howard Johnson’s three inches off its foundation while throwing its roof atop The Days Inn. In the aftermath and for the immediate years to come, everyone assumed the prime option was to rebuild or replace these hotels, because that’s what that area always was and always would be.
The Meyers Group, led by Dave Meyers, owned the destroyed properties, along with Seafarer’s Village Mall and the adjacent Helmerich Plaza directly across Estero Boulevard according to a November 8, 2006 Beach Observer report. Their initial redevelopment called for 300 condominium and hotel rooms with 90,000 square-feet of retail, a revamped roadway to alleviate traffic, a five-story parking garage for 600 cars, two pedestrian overhead walkways and a 20,000-square-foot public beach park.
The Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce, in fact, only emphasized one thing in its wish-list regarding the planned project at that time: more hotels rooms in the new design than were originally in the destroyed hotels. Town planning consultant Bill Spikowski summarized in May 2005 that “I think the biggest thing that would keep it from happening is our lack of belief in ourselves, that we can pull this off and make it something good.”
A Seafarer’s End
But plans lagged, arguments ensued, and lawsuits began. In February 2007, hotel demolition occurred including The Days Inn, and since that business owned the liquor license for Jimmy B’s, it closed and was torn down within 90 days. As the lots quickly became overgrown nuisances, few appreciated the economic loss of those long-standing 300 hotel rooms. Seafarer’s Village was surely immune to what seemed such a paltry number, especially since it was so popular with locals and seasonal residents.
Dusseldorf’s on The Beach was a great favorite, featuring authentic German food with over 140 imported beers and was host to the annual Oktoberfest. Cabasca’s on the other hand had more than 101 margarita flavors to enhance its Mexican cuisine, and was the world’s easiest establishment to enter: its bar opened right out onto the Estero Boulevard sidewalk and was always full of patrons from late morning through late night. Chiggie’s boasted that they piled their “Dagwood” sandwiches so high and full that “no one ever finished one,” and in a sign of those times, had women’s Jell-O wresting in plastic baby pools! Tradewinds was a bar and dance club with handmade bamboo décor from Bali. Tetley’s, European and continental by nature, served off-the-wall selections like ostrich and kangaroo.
Without the hotels, though, Seafarer’s Village slowly lost its foot traffic, then eventually – slowly and agonizingly – lost everything. Jimmy B’s even made an ill-fated comeback on the top level within sight of the Gulf, but wasn’t the same being off the beach and finally went under, the final Seafarer’s Village tenant to close. The structure fell into neglect and came down in 2011, leaving the current fenced lot.
By then, Southwest Florida, the nation, and world were deep in The Great Recession. Prior to the collapse, the combined value of the parcels was roughly $30 million; by the beginning of 2010 that fell to below $6 million, and redevelopment was no longer economically feasible.
That September, Lee County bought the properties for $5.6 million. The Seafarer’s Village land was to be for public parking for a future beach park on the vacant hotel lands. Even then, many disagreed that Crescent Beach Family Park was the final solution. Lee County Commissioner and former Beach mayor Larry Kiker spoke for those, saying “I think it would be most beneficial for a private enterprise with hotels that would help build that area back to how it was or better.”
Today, Tomorrow, & Beyond
McDonald’s did not go up on that overgrown lot next to the Surf Song, but opened in 1993 across from the hotels. It enjoyed a 20-year run until unexpectedly closing in 2013. Its building now sits vacant, as are four of the first six structures south of the bridge. Crescent Beach Family Park is a scenic first impression of the island but is often empty and unused, without parking, in front of a public beach that already has a gorgeous Gulf view. The park has an air of impermanence to it, with temporary restrooms and only a few picnic tables and a volleyball net. Three decades ago these were the absolute prime beach parcels; today they are abandoned reminders of an era long gone but perhaps not yet dead.
Change is tough, rarely easy, and often unpopular. Who among us, though, wants to bring back the old span bridge and its traffic tie-ups? What would the island be without Bowditch Point or Lynn Hall Memorial Parks? Who wants the road to run straight through Times Square again, transforming our premier destination back into a dirty and smelly asphalt patch? Even the then-controversial DiamondHead Beach Resort & Spa that led to the formation of the Town is now a highly-respected community neighbor.
The Past is Prologue
No one knows the final fate of the Grand Resorts – FMB proposal, but eventually change will occur, because it always does, whether manmade or through the force of nature. Some things like Times Square and Bowditch Point come; others like Seafarer’s Village or the hotels go. As Bill Spikowski said about the potential for redevelopment in 2012, seven years after his initial comment, “If there was an easy solution, it would have been done long ago.”
In 20 years, this 7-mile stretch of sand is sure to look much different than it does today, whether Grand Resorts-FMB becomes a reality or not. After all, the only constant is change.
Photos by Gary Mooney