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Fort Myers Beach downtown development plan would be dazzling

By Staff | Dec 1, 2015

Grand Resorts’ list of amenities and solutions for the transformation of Fort Myers Beach’s downtown is staggering: A roundabout at the base of the sky bridge, eliminating a traffic light and enhancing traffic flow; a parking garage, complete with 1,500 stalls and seven elevators; a skywalk over Estero Boulevard, ensuring pedestrian safety; a pedestrian mall complete with a 1,000-seat convention center, a public fitness center and public spa; 562 new hotel rooms; a 2,000-foot-long beachfront boardwalk, featuring 10 beach-access points; a seawall which will fight beach erosion; and the promise of plenty of dunes with the sea turtles in mind.

And when complete within the next 4 to 5 years, the area will see as many as 500 new jobs. Within 10 years, the economic impact for the town could be as high as of $1.6 billion.

OK, now exhale.

“We just had a great pep rally,” said Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann of the plans and potential impact outlined Monday before the Fort Myers Beach Town Council and the Lee County Board of Commissioners. Grand Resorts is a project spearheaded by Beach resident Tom Torgerson, who has purchased several properties in the area of Crescent Street and Estero Boulevard with an elaborate redevelopment in mind.

“I love the concept,” said Beach resident Mutzie Prasse, part of an overflow crowd of roughly 250 residents on hand at Florida SouthWestern State College. “I just hope they (town officials) don’t sit on it for 10 years.”

The two governing bodies would have to improve approve the $250 million plan, which developers hope to begin with boardwalk construction as early as next fall, with two public hearings required for both before any action can be taken. However, Beach Mayor Anita Cereceda suggested her township consider beginning talks on the matter as soon as Monday’s town council meeting.

“I don’t want to let things linger without any direction from us,” she told the development team.

Added council member Rexann Hosafross, “I don’t want to waste this opportunity. I’m very impressed with their (the developers’) motivations.”

At the center of the project would be the building of four beachfront hotels — a 176-unit Hilton resort, a 200-unit Holiday Inn resort, a 100-unit boutique Marriott resort, and an 86-unit Hampton Inn resort. Plans call for such things as beachfront pools and cocktail lounges to accompany them, and behind them at street level would be opportunities for retail shops and restaurants.

“Those four brands are powerful ones,” said project investor John Dammermann, also a Beach resident. “All being different, they would bring a diverse customer base.”

Helen Crumbie has owned rental property on Fort Myers Beach for 17 years and was in attendance. “I’m quite interested and I think this would be a real upgrade. Obviously they (the developers) have done their homework,” she said. “And I’m sure my renters would enjoy the aspect of having this nearby. But I am worried about the traffic.”

Indeed, traffic congestion was the biggest concern raised at the meeting.

“I told them, ‘If it doesn’t improve the status quo, I’m not interested,'” said Mann, who noted previous development proposals by different parties over the years did not sufficiently address traffic problems.

Beyond the roundabout and parking garage, the rerouting of Estero Boulevard near the project would be required, the developers said, it moving toward the bay. Where it now runs, home to the island’s worst gridlock, would instead be home to the pedestrian mall.

Beach resident Ed Arasimowicz said during a break in the meeting that he has faith in Torgerson’s appreciation of the traffic concern.

“Overall, I like the concept and Tom understands the traffic because he sits on the island just we all do, so he lives it as well,” Arasimowicz said. “With that in mind, I think it’s a very clean concept.”

Artist renderings presented Monday included views heading toward the beach on the sky bridge with the hotel complex in place, according to scale. Developers suggested it would not overwhelm the beach’s skyline or limit the Gulf of Mexico view, noting it would be similar in height to the existing Lani Kai Island Resort and much smaller than the existing DiamondHead Beach Resort.

Meanwhile, the roundabout, complete with designs of arches commemorating old Fort Myers, would serve as a perfect gateway upon arrival, developers said.

As for the rendering of the hotels’ look from the beach, Commissioner Bran Hamman said he thought the hotels looked “too urban” and said he would rather see them look more like “old Fort Myers Beach” a sentiment shared by many in the audience.

Several older hotels used to stand in the vicinity but were wiped out by Hurricane Charley in 2004.

In response to the desire for a more nostalgic, small-town look, Dammermann’s reply was: “I came from a small town in Minnesota so I understand that, but what brought me here weren’t the buildings or the architecture but the people and the culture. I would ask everyone to just keep an open mind.”

Dammermann also commended the town on its recent commitment to embarking on what is roughly a $70 million overhaul of Estero Boulevard now in progress. He said it helped motivate his and Torgerson’s investment.

“It’s a good example of how infrastructure improvements with public money can spur private development,” he said.

Torgerson said the project would require some financing. Thus far, he has invested $38 million in land acquisition and planning, he said.

“The fact the land is actually bought and paid for should give you a feeling of confidence,” he said.

Mann agreed.

“He’s put his money where his mouth is,” Mann said of Torgerson. “That’s different than his predecessors.”

Upon leaving the meeting, Beach resident Steven Lisay said he was impressed.

“These sound like good improvements to me,” he said.