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Kayak club lease back on the table

By Staff | Dec 12, 2013

On Monday, the Cape Coral City Council is expected to make its final decision on whether to enter into a lease agreement with an area kayak club that has big plans for city-owned property on Lake Kennedy.

The Southwest Florida Canoe Kayak Club is hoping to lease the property from which it has offered programs for the last two years with the hopes of developing, in the next three to five years, a world-class training facility for Olympic level kayakers while continuing to serve local enthusiasts, children and para athletes.

The lease, in the works for the last year, initially drew little complaint.

However residents who live on the lake have come forward with concerns that the waterways could eventually be filled with kayakers, to the point where they won’t be able to get their boats in the water.

They are concerned with the lease amount – $10 per year – and the possible effect on property values.

The Dream

The plan is to expand its current location into an athlete “development” facility to include a boathouse, a 100-dorm room complex, a beach, boathouse, locker rooms, stage, boat rentals and a cross-training facility that would attract athletes training in the winter, and serve as a camp for other sports.

The Southwest Florida Canoe Kayak Club, a non-profit group, says it will pay for the improvements on the property through grants and/or private funding.

The goal is to pay for the training, equipment and travel of any club member that makes any U.S. national sprint canoe or kayak team, create scholarships for at-risk youths, disabled vets, special pops and para-athletes, do community outreach and buy new equipment.

It has already become a place for beginners and children with special needs to come to try their hand at the sport.

“They’re working with a lot of our residents and children and Special Pops in teaching them,” said Councilmember Rick Williams, in whose district is the proposed facility will be. “They’re going to draw international athletes to train because the venue is perfect.”

“We’re trying to get kids who are athletic, but don’t feel the traditional sports are what they’re good at. We give them an alternative that utilizes our 400 miles of canals,” said Ian Mack, who runs the club with his wife, Melinda.

City Economic Development Director Dana Brunett has said the economic impact of the athletes staying here would be significant, especially if more come to the area to train during the winter months.

The Lee County Sports Authority estimates that 234 visitors daily over a 120-day period would generate $6.8 million in total impact to Lee County and create at least 76 jobs.

The alternatives to a lease would be to sell the house, valued at $169,000 with a tax impact of $1,076, not comparable to its potential use as a sports tourism site, officials said.

“It can bring in name recognition and revenue for the city. It will bring a lot of visitors. It’s the type of thing we want to bring into the Cape,” Williams said.

Those numbers are music to the ears of the Lee County Sports Authority, said Executive Director Jeff Mielke, especially in a city that doesn’t have three baseball stadiums or a hockey arena.

“Any time you can add a new sports venue to a city it’s a good thing. It expands the diversity of events we can host,” Mielke said. “If we have a club with a training center, not only can that bring in people to train, but it also increases our reputation in the sport.”

The facility would include a 100-room dormitory that could be used year-round to house athletes taking part in area tournaments or future camps.

“It touches both local opportunities and serves as a sports tourism venue that could bring tourism dollars into the city,” Mielke said. “A sports tourism community is only as strong as the venues in the town. When you can put something in that doesn’t exist, it expands everything.”

Not on my lake

Even with the projected revenues, economic impact and the good it could create locally, there are some who live around the lake who aren’t too keen on the idea of a training center. For one thing, many of them moved to Lake Kennedy, Lake Saratoga and other connecting waterways because of the access to the water for fishing and boating.

Lindsay Nesnidal is among those who are skeptical of the club’s claims. She is concerned that with the influx of international athletes and recreational canoeists all converging on the lake at once, it could create a safety concern for residents and those at the club.

“I don’t think things have been open and honest from the beginning. The Coast Guard has confirmed if something like this were to occur on a lake of this size, the next step would be a restriction because you cannot have a free-for-all on the water,” Nesnidal said. “You will have potentially 100 kayaks; even 20, you would have trouble and co-mingle without restrictions.”

“The residents are out there with their boats or waterskiing and they don’t want conflicts,” Williams said.

Other concerns include the $10 amount for the lease; the amount of space critics fear it would take to store the canoes and kayaks which could make the area an eyesore; and that the lake should be preserved for residential use, not “commercial.”

Opponents challenged the club’s non-profit status at the Nov. 4 meeting, as the club charges $25 per lesson and a $150 annual fee to join, without applying for the permits they allege are necessary to run the “business” from the facility.

“They believe this is a corporate venture and that the city is allowing it to get into their private lives,” Williams said. “

“You are commercializing a lake. This is no longer a tranquil place to raise your children. You have an industry in your back yard,” Nesnidal said. “There’s no foundation to the claims they’ve made.”

Nesnidal also said the commercialization would create a backlash to the hotel industry, which would no longer get to house these athletes, even if those hotels are outside the area, because of the dorms.

“There are areas already facing low occupancy and on the verge of bankruptcy. The likeliness is that much of the shopping they would do would happen in Fort Myers anyway,” Nesnidal said.

They also cited alleged code violations, such as the lack of parking and illegal trailers and containers on the property.

“There are a lot of legitimate concerns. It’s not scare tactics. It’s misunderstandings on both sides,” Williams said.

Mack disagrees, saying many of the accusations have been made by a few “cancers” who don’t want the city to grow or see anything but what they want to do on the water.

He said there’s a lot of misinformation about the long-term proposal.

“When this popped up, we told them of all our plans. They took that information, turned it 180 degrees, and started telling people and that’s what people have been hearing,” Mack said. “Once we tell people what we’re doing, they seem to be OK.”

Mack said some of the claims included there would be 400 kayaks and canoes on the water, that there would be formal regattas with 10,000 people flooding the area, and even one where they would allow child molesters and sexual predators in the area.

Mack said one of the few legitimate concerns is over property values, and even that’s still subjective because all there’s going to be are kayakers in the water.

Gloria Raso Tate, a former city council member and longtime Realtor, has attended the meetings between the groups, said it’s probably just another fear.

“It’s an unknown. At the beginning I don’t think they understood the proposal. When they showed the rendering of what the area was going to look like, I don’t think they realized it could be a finished product,” Tate said. “They thought there would be a kayak shack and have all these boats in the water.”

A brief history

Last year, the Southwest Florida Canoe Kayak Club approached city council to seek a lease for the house at 418 S.W. 3rd Place, near Lake Kennedy, which the Parks & Recreation department owns and uses for the Coconut Festival.

The idea was to have Cape Coral become the go-to place for kayakers and canoeists to come to train and take advantage of the warm weather.

On Dec, 10, the City Council unanimously approved a $1 lease with the club until a formal lease could be agreed upon.

It seemed to work as world-class athletes from Denmark, England and Canada, as well as para-Olympians came to do their training. The influx of such resulted in a cash windfall for area businesses, proponents said.

The city and kayak club seemed have everything ironed out in the fall. For $10 annually, the club would get to lease the residence and vacant three-acre site for five years, plus an additional five-year term.

On Nov. 4, it seemed as if the lease was all but a done deal. However, area residents put up a major road block when they came to City Hall to voice their complaints. They were countered by an equally passionate contingent of supporters, and a two-hour debate ensued.

When then-councilmember Kevin McGrail made a motion to approve the ordinance, he was faced with silence – and no second.

“I’m surprised we’ve come so far from two weeks ago. The positives that were there then are still there now,” McGrail said.

To keep the ordinance alive, the council was forced to continue it until Dec. 2 so both side could come together to air their grievances.

That was pushed back an extra two weeks after both sides had failed to come together in a timely manner.

Today and tomorrow

The two sides have northwest several times, and Councilmember Rick Williams said things are going well, with residents learning a little bit more about what’s happening.

“They are becoming a little more amenable to having the facility over there and the club is beginning to understand the residents’ concerns.” Williams said. “It’s a matter of talking.”

City Manager John Szerlag, who has been the facilitator in the talks, said he hoped to have something before Monday’s meeting.

“We’re using the interest-based approach to solving the matter. I’ve been using professional neutrality and consolidated their concerns to general interests,” Szerlag said. “That’s why we don’t want the press there because you take positions and it gets published and the feelings become anchored.”

Mack wouldn’t get into detail, but said the talks have been very constructive.

“It’s really opened our eyes to a lot of things. Some of the things that concern them would concern us being citizens. We want to stress a lot of what they’ve heard is incorrect,” Mack said. “We have come to an agreement on a lot of items. Just a few we haven’t, but it’s been a positive experience.”

Nesnidal has been to two meetings and her feelings are not as positive.

“No progress. I see many of the supporters disregard our concerns. We were given homework to present solutions for the problems and they weren’t covered. It was focused on the interests of the kayak club,” Nesnidal said. “If you gave them an opportunity to negotiate, they shut you down.”

With four new members on council, it’s hard to predict support or any lack thereof.

“I don’t know how the city council will decide, but I hope we come to the council with an agreement from both sides and we’ll take it from there,” said Williams, one of those newly elected council members.

Should the ordinance fail, the kayak club has a Plan B, which is to perhaps find another location or city to put down stakes.

“Regardless of how this vote goes, this is not a loss for the kayak club, this is a loss for the community and Cape Coral,” Mack said. “There are four or five other communities that have asked to bring it to them. Millions is being projected for the area.”