A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, there was no Times Square on Fort Myers Beach, and Estero Boulevard ran right through the heart of that neighborhood, as the Town’s popular center did not exist until the early 1990s.
But, since 1983, there has been a Pete’s Time Out.
And, since 1979, there has been a Plaka Restaurant.
“I can still remember then-Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah, sitting right here in my restaurant,” recalls Plaka owner Steve Maillakakis, “telling me how great Times Square would be for our businesses, even though we would lose parking and visible signage. We gave up a lot, but eventually agreed to the plan on a handshake, with the promise that this area would be ours, but later the County deeded it to the Town of Fort Myers Beach.”
“It was hard for us to buy into that vision,” adds John Lallo, owner of the adjacent Pete’s Time Out. “We were making money and this was going to change everything, and we hoped not in a negative way, as it effected everything we did, from infrastructure to deliveries to trash pick-up, but you want to be a team player. Now I wish that local government would be good team players to us like we have been for a quarter-century.”
Steve and John are integral members of the Times Square Merchants Association that sponsors among other activities, the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve Fireworks as well as the weekly “Sunset Celebrations” concerts each Friday and Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. Part of these successful programs involve the Merchants Association renting the stage owned by the Town, with staff to set it up and take it down, and the appropriate permits. The Town, however, recently amended its permits and fees, thereby increasing what the Merchants Association must pay.
“The Town makes us pay for the stage rental, set up time, square footage and permit,” explains Steve, “so the money adds up, even though we weren’t supposed to pay for any of this in the first place, and now they charge us rather than helping us. The original permit was $35 for three days, but that was not user-friendly, so the Town worked with us to establish a yearly one for recurring events like ours for $1,080. They charge us to rent the stage and for the pay of two Town employees who set it up on Friday afternoons and take it down on Sunday mornings, so that costs us $250-per-week, in addition to the permit fee and the price of the bands that we fully cover.”
Paying Their Fair Share
The Town, however, raised the permit cost from $1,080 to $2,750 and the stage set-up fee to $65.75 per-hour-per-employee, equating to a 160% increase. In addition to this, the stage is old, no longer functional, and requires a replacement. “Don’t get me wrong, we are trying to put people in our businesses,” admits John, “but it’s also about doing something for the Town and the public. And we are not asking that the Town let us do this for free, but to eliminate the increase in fees to us.”
At the Town Council Meeting on Tuesday, June 6, the men requested that the Town provide this partial waiver, but Council voted unanimously against this 4 to 0, with Council member Anita Cereceda absent due to an emergency.
“We pay our money to the Town every month, without ever missing a single one, without any complaints about the events,” said John. “We do this as a community thing and we put so much time into this, and I don’t understand why we get treated this way. I just don’t know where to go with this and am so frustrated!” “The funny part,” adds Steve, “is the concerts are so popular, Town employees often come with their families and love it! We are doing a good thing for the community, then don’t get any help.”
To save money, they hosted their first “Sunset Celebration” without the stage last weekend. “The game plan kind-of worked,” John says, “but it looked unprofessional and rinky-dink. Performers don’t like standing there, with people milling close to their equipment. A nice stage makes the program seem more professional and legitimate.”
When asked if the Town can offer a solution, both men said all it needs to do is to grandfather them in to the former costs. Pending that, what does the future hold for the popular weekend “Sunset Celebrations”?
“We just don’t know; this is frustrating,” John explains. “Times Square is the urban center of Fort Myers Beach,” adds Steve, “and it should host things like concerts. Most towns help to accommodate events like these.” “We are survivors,” John added. “We are down but not out!”