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Charlotte-Lee-Collier
Business Observer Friday, Jan. 27, 2017 3 years ago

All aboard

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A onetime train station — and later a museum — is primed for a rebirth as a technology hub.
by: Ted Carter Contributing Writer

A Fort Myers train station that helped bring people and prosperity to Southwest Florida early in the previous century may soon take on the same role in 21st-century fashion.

Look for the transformation to happen by mid-2018, says Sarah Owen, president and CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation. Her organization is leading a
$10 million effort to transform the 1924 Atlantic Coast Line depot into a “collaboration accelerator” for nonprofit groups and other socially conscious organizations. It's also a catalyst for reviving a multiblock area of midtown Fort Myers, just outside the downtown core.

“I'm fascinated with the idea of old rail and how it used to connect the region,” Owen says. She also relishes the idea of renovating the 8,000-square-foot, 92-year-old depot at 2031 Jackson St., in addition to constructing an adjoining 10,000-square-foot building. The complex, officials say, will again connect the region, only now through a high-tech open workspace.

Owen says the foundation, which manages $100 million in assets in Charlotte, Lee, Collier, Hendry and Glades counties, is confident it can meet a July 2018 completion deadline. The short work schedule is a condition for obtaining $3 million in federal New Market Tax Credits. Other financing for the train depot renovation and construction project is coming from U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corp. and Whitney Bank and Hancock Bank, a joint banking group.

The city of Fort Myers, meanwhile, will start a parallel three-year project within the next four months to install underground utilities and upgrade streetscaping in midtown. The project includes lighting, park benches, brick-covered crosswalks and new curbing and landscaping.

“The city's vision is for the midtown neighborhood to become an extension of our vibrant downtown area,” City Manager Saeed Kazemi says in an email.

He says city officials hope to duplicate the success of the previous decade's improvements downtown, where Fort Myers invested more than $60 million. “Fort Myers plans to invest $25 million in midtown to make that neighborhood more appealing for new housing options and to attract more businesses, including tech companies,” Kazemi adds.

The city recently set the stage for the midtown revival by opening a $12 million fire station at Jackson Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

The Spanish mission-style train depot closed in 1971 when the Seaboard Coast Line rail pulled out. A new life came in 1982 with conversion of the station into the Southwest Florida History Museum. That era ended with the recent departure of the museum to new quarters at the Imaginarium Science Center a few blocks east on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. 

Owen and the Southwest Florida Community Foundation envision a 3-acre campus setting for the depot and accompanying building. The new tech hub will offer office space, drop-in space, hot desks, podcast booths, high-tech presentation rooms and other features designed to assist nonprofit groups, civic organizations, local governments and economic development entities in the Community
Foundation's five-county region. The campus also will be open to startups with a “social” element in their business models.

The project received a big boost from an agreement with Florida Lambda Rail, an independent statewide fiber optical network, to provide super-fast internet links to the campus. “We want to create a collaboration accelerator powered by technology,” Owen says, further describing the project as “an incubator to solve local and regional issues.”

Foundation officials are interested in taking on challenges and creating opportunities around obtainable housing, access to help for children with behavior problems and water-purity issues. “We want nonprofits to have access to the staff and the technology available,” Owen says. “We want to see how they can solve problems in our communities using the best technology.”

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