Grand Resorts developer shares information on Beach project
Tom Torgerson is the CEO of TPI Hospitality, a company that boasts 40-plus hotels and convention centers. A local resident, Torgerson and investment partner John Dammermann, also a local resident, have proposed a development for Fort Myers Beach’s downtown area that features four hotels, a parking garage, a pedestrian mall, space for ground-level retail operations, a boardwalk with seawall, and a roundabout at the base of the Sky Bridge. The plan would also require the rerouting of Estero Boulevard.
Recently, he participated in the following Q&A session exclusively for the Fort Myers Beach Observer, a Breeze Newspapers sister publication.
Q: If given the green light for Grand Resorts, 2016 could be quite a year for you. Where would it rank among your career accomplishments?
A: “Nothing of magnitude at TPI Hospitality is achieved by an individual, but rather as a team. I would mention a couple accomplishments that rank awfully high, to include:
1. Evolving from a family-owned/family-run business to a professionally owned/professionally run business to finally a professionally run/100-percent employee-owned business as ultimately our greatest accomplishment to date.
2. In 2015, via third-party independent anonymous employee interviews, and under the direction of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal, TPI was ranked as the No. 2 “best place to work” amongst large employers in the entire state of Minnesota, competing against both public and privately owned enterprises. TPI currently is comprised of approximately 2,000 employee/owners.”
Q: Your first presentation of the plan on Fort Myers Beach received some negative reactions – even boos. Where you surprised by this?
A: “I believe that the public is learning that we do listen and take public input seriously. I also believe the public is learning that they don’t need to be unpleasant to obtain our attention. In the end, a wonderful outcome for the downtown redevelopment on Fort Myers Beach would be for it to not be divisive but rather to embrace the public benefits of the redevelopment and become involved in molding it into the best outcome possible.”
Q: Let’s rewind… Tell us about how and why you moved from Minnesota to Fort Myers Beach. Was it with this development in mind, or did that evolve as you settled in?
A: “I started visiting Fort Myers Beach seasonally in 1991 when I rack-stored a boat at Fish Tale Marina, 25 years ago. My wife and I moved solely for personal reasons having nothing to do with business and we have no regrets with the permanent relocation. We maintain a cabin in Minnesota close to family and friends and visit them often. In fact, I am responding to this interview right now with a view of a frozen lake out front from our cabin office window.”
Q: More than one of your detractors have said to this newspaper something along the lines of “if Mr. Torgerson likes it here as much as he says he does, why does he want to change it?” What’s your reaction to that?
A: “My friend and business associate, John Dammermann, and I learned of community desires to redevelop the Fort Myers Beach downtown commercial-core district and we also learned about previous failed attempts at doing so. It was that history lesson that transpired in February and March of 2015 that was the catalyst for us to create a vision to revitalize the area and address several public needs that impact the quality of life on Fort Myers Beach. That vision started with sharing concept ideas in April using hand sketches off of Google maps and evolved from there over this past summer. In our little rental on the beach, we would have large pieces of paper spread out over the living room floor that we would just stare at and obtain input on. It simply evolved during the remainder of the year and was not as much as a faint idea in either John’s or my minds before March 2015.
“John and I each put our pants on one leg at a time, just like everyone else. Yes, we have achieved some successes in our lives, but I would only hope that, in and of itself, it does not cause people to pre-judge who we really are. Neither one of us are spotlight kind of people and are not comfortable with the public nature this project has taken on. We know it goes with the territory in this situation and accept that and will do our best to represent ourselves, the community and the employee-owners of TPI.”
Q: Others have said the downtown – while still keeping that old-Florida, small-town feel – needs “modernizing.” Is that part of the equation?
A: “We believe there are only two forces in this world that can persist and those are you either go forwards or you go backwards. In that regard, it is humanly impossibly to hover in neutral for any extended period of time. There are facts that can be ignored but not denied such as the town does need a growing tax base. And it can be accomplished by revitalizing some areas that quite frankly have run their life cycle. We know the community is living with the infrastructure improvements underway and just doesn’t have an appetite for something that would cause more disruption. We have carefully evaluated staging of the proposed redevelopment to occur without disruption to Estero Boulevard. Accomplishing this important goal would require us to phase the redevelopment over a five-year period.”
Q: In recent correspondence, you have said a third-party study suggests the proposed four-level parking garage could lose a floor and still do the job. Also, you said you may consider eliminating one floor off the proposed seven-story Hilton although it would be “a very painful consideration for us.” Further, you said you are considering “softening” the contemporary look of the Marriott with a more “old Florida” look. Are these considerations coming in the form of compromises resulting in public pressure, or are they simply a better idea? And in general, how far are you willing to go with adjustments?
A: “We have never, in the public input process that has been going on for months now, dug our heels in and said, “It is our way or the highway.” We have said that the lodging components are the financial locomotive that allows for this redevelopment to occur. Both public and private improvements can be fully funded from the energy of the project while still advancing monies into the general funds of the county and town. I think my quote was something to the effect that we are considering taking a story off of the Hilton, but that doing so was painful. That is because it slows down the locomotive and without the locomotive, nothing can happen – sorry, it is just a fact, another one that can be ignored but not denied. We actually have many enhancements we are working toward incorporating before our next public open house and yes, these are based on input we’ve received from productive conversations with the public. The list is long, but some of them are taking a story off of both the garage and Hilton. Incorporating lease space on the bay-side of the garage at grade level for uses like medical, first responders, maybe an emergency room, etc. – they will provide community services and soften the architecture both on Crescent Street and when passing through the garage. We are doing an overhaul of building architectures in general and warming up the pedestrian mall. We are expanding the roundabout, we are designing a pedestrian/bike fly-over to the second level of the garage from the Sky Bridge to avoid having to go up to go down and avoid vehicle conflicts to get to the other side of Estero Boulevard. We are proposing a Crescent Beach Plaza, which is a significant beachfront public park that we feel will be highly utilized by the community. The list goes on, and we are busy preparing for our next public advancement and input to take place mid-January. The Chapel by the Sea has graciously offered to make its sanctuary available to the community to provide a comfortable sit-down environment for this next open house.”
Q: You now own quite a bit of land and buildings in the proposed area with more needed acquisitions to go. Two of them are active businesses – the Salty Crab and the Pierview Hotel, both businesses to some extent representing your area of expertise. What happens if this project doesn’t come to fruition? And if so, will you continue to operate those businesses?
A: “I always have difficulty with hypotheticals. It just seems like a better use of our energies to work with everyone and figure out how to get the revitalization accomplished rather than expend energies on hypothetical failure scenarios. It just seems a waste of time and energy. I will go as far down this path to say that we believe the risk of failure is directly related to the amount of public involvement in molding the project. The more involvement, the less likely to fail, and the less involvement, the most likely to fail. I just don’t think it is a good use of our time to go beyond that.”
Q: Two local council seats are being contested in mid March, only one of which may belong to an incumbent (Vice Mayor Dan Andre has yet to decide if he’ll run). Clearly, your project will be a focal point of the campaigns. Does the notion of new blood in the voting process concern you?
A: “To me this is like considering hypotheticals – it is simply out of one’s control. We are not going to get involved in the political election process, as that would be terribly inappropriate. To further that position, we are not contributing to any political campaigns or making any donations. This project needs to stand on its own two feet and speak for itself to be successful. I truly believe this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Fort Myers Baech, so let’s get cohesive and work together and abolish any win-lose mentality. Nothing is ever perfect for everyone, but that is no reason not to be involved in making it the best it can possibly be. At TPI Hospitality, we use core values to guide our behavior and decision making – not rules, policies and procedures. We believe that if we live and breathe our core values every day, our guests will be happy, our employees will be happy, and we will be successful.”
Q: The Grand Resorts proposal includes a dizzying array of elements and considerations. In the interest of summation, can you tell residents in 20 words or less why this is a home run?
A: “We will listen, and to the best of our ability, incorporate what we can in molding a plan that provides public benefit and makes you proud.”
(To learn more about the Grand Resorts proposal, visit www.grandresortsfmb.com. Readers can email questions to: email@example.com)