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Lee Civic Center’s future in question?

Committee to hear two proposals for county facility and property

By CHUCK BALLARO - | Mar 10, 2021

news@breezenewspapers.com

A committee put together to evaluate management proposals for the Lee County Civic Center agreed Friday to give each of the only two submitters an opportunity to give a presentation and answer questions at a later date.

But not before residents who live in the still mostly rural area who have attended the Lee County Fair there for years had their say, with nearly every speaker not happy about one of the two proposals submitted.

Kitson & Partners, the developer of Babcock Ranch, has proposed to buy the 100 acres on which the Civic Center stands and, with 62 acres it owns adjacent to the site, to build a large-scale development off Bayshore Road where it terminates at SR 31.

The Southwest Florida Lee County Fair Association, which has run the Civic Center since 2000, wants to remain the group that continues to manage the county-owned facility.

The association received near unanimous support from members of the public who attended Friday’s public input session at the Lee County Public Works Building in Fort Myers.

Mike Peak, president of the fair association, said the organization has gone through several audits and has proven it can run the facility, as aged as it is.

“We have a proven track record. We’ve taken care of the building and property,” Peak said.

Many of the speakers talked about how they attended the fair as children and presented animals as a member of 4-H as their children do now.

Plans for a shopping center and possibly a resort there, others said, would destroy the rural nature of the Bayshore community, with one saying that if a shopping center is built, as Kitson seems to want, it would ruin everything and she would have to sell her ranch.

Many, though, conceded the facility is in desperate need of TLC.

The main building is decaying and cannot hold the events it needs to be profitable. The bleachers were condemned a few years ago, so concerts or high school graduations are not an option.

“We set up a payment plan to build the Tinsley Pavilion 20 years ago. I’m sure we could do a payment plan for a new civic center. If you go for a new building, you can go a little bigger and raise the capacity,” Peak said.

By replacing the bleachers, capacity at the civic center would be around 4,000. Peak said it would have to be between 7,000 and 10,000, which is why the civic center went out of the concert business because it couldn’t sell enough tickets for the promoters.

The issue came forward as the fair association’s lease neared its expiration date.

County staff briefed commissioners, none of whom were on the elected board when the management agreement was signed 20-plus years ago.

The consensus was that it was in the best interest of the county to look at all options for this property through the Invitation to Negotiate (ITN) process.

The ITN is designed to invite and identify qualified parties interested in developing and/or managing the property at 11831 Bayshore Road

Kitson & Partners’ preliminary designs include the expansion of the Route 31 bridge, pedestrian access to the waterfront and reconfiguring the intersection at Bayshore Road and Route 31 which would provide primary access to the future development site.

Members of the public are not the only ones who question whether development is the proper route.

Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann, in whose district the facility is located, said the county-owned property is still getting good use and that any rumors about any development now moving forward are false.

“Nobody has talked about selling it. We went out for proposals for management of the facility because the Southwest Florida Lee County Fair Association had a 20-year contract that expired last year, but was extended an extra year because of COVID,” Mann said. “Chances are slim to none that there will be a shopping center. It would be a waste of a county asset.”

The civic center property is a huge facility with limited uses, making it underutilized, Mann said. The idea is to increase the usage of the 40-plus year-old facility.

Commissioner Brian Hamman, whose district includes parts of Cape Coral and North Fort Myers, said he would love to see the civic center offer the same kind of civic events such as the fair, as well as what it previously offered, like graduations and concerts. But for those types of events to return, the county would have to either vastly renovate the facility or tear it down and build something new.

“The stands are condemned. The building is in bad shape. I want to see something that preserves the civic activities we all love. I want to keep the fair and 4-H, the things we’re used to,” Hamman said. “I would also like to see the events I grew up with. To do that, the building would have to be in a lot better shape.”

Hamman said he was just outlining what he wants to see, knowing that social media has been hot on this story, with many different renditions.

“The train started moving really fast on social media and things went viral. I thought it would help to let everyone know there are a lot of hurdles for anyone to jump through,” Hamman said. “Just because things are being proposed, doesn’t mean that things are going to be approved.”

Kitson & Partners did not immediately return calls for comment.

Currently, the building and facility is used as a staging area for the National Guard, electrical linemen and others during an emergency.

Friday’s meeting constituted the first of several steps before the issue comes before the county commission.

After the committee agreed to consider the proposals further, it determined the ground rules for the next meeting.

Representatives from each submitter will get 30 minutes to make their presentation, followed by 30 minutes of questioning by the committee.

The date of such a meeting was not set Friday.