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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 23, 2016 1 year ago

Fallow no more

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Plans to revamp an important downtown Fort Myers tract imploded during the recession, leaving it derelict. That's about to change.
by: Kevin McQuaid Observer Staff

More than a decade ago, the 18-acre Page Mobile Village mobile home park was envisioned as the ideal site for a Super Walmart or some other retail-intense development.

It was a safe bet. The mobile home park sat in a busy downtown Fort Myers traffic corridor, and the property was one of the last remaining large tracts of land along U.S. 41 in the area.

Cornerstone Page Village LLC, of Coral Gables, was so confident that it spent $8.2 million in October 2005 to acquire the 4944 S. Cleveland Ave. dirt. But when state transportation officials rejected plans to put a traffic light near the site for greater vehicular access, the Arkansas-based retail giant moved on.

Last decade's economic recession dealt a deathblow to redevelopment there, and Cornerstone's plans withered. Lender Bank of America foreclosed on the company's loan and took possession of the land in early 2009, according to Lee County property records.

The following year, an investment group with ties to Sarasota — U.S. 41 Page Field — snapped up the site for $2.1 million, a fraction of what Cornerstone had paid.

What happened next was, well, nothing.

Despite its prime location in the heart of Fort Myers, its proximity to a municipal sports complex and its inclusion in the city's Community Redevelopment Area that would allow developers to take advantage of tax increment financing, the land sat fallow — for years.

Now, though, a Tampa development firm has acquired the property with plans for 280 market-rate apartments and roughly 10,000 square feet of retail space — including a Krispy Kreme donut shop.

The $33 million Grand Central project also will bring new life to the Lee County and could spark further redevelopment in the downtown core, officials say.

“It was kind of an eyesore,” says Brett Low, a LandQwest Commercial agent with the Fort Myers-based brokerage firm who negotiated the September sale of the property.

An affiliate of Aileron Capital Management, which spent $5.15 million to buy the property, hopes to break ground early next year. If that schedule holds, the new retail space could be delivered by the end of 2017, with the multifamily units coming online in mid-2018, Low says.

Aileron partner Joe Bonora could not be reached for comment on the project.

“I think there was a general lack of vision for the totality of the project until Joe came along,” Low says. “There was retail interest in the site for some time, but the multifamily component made it a compelling package.”

In addition to Krispy Kreme, which will open a 3,300-square-foot, free-standing store, Low, who is working with Aileron, is hoping to attract a sit-down restaurant to the site.

“It's going to be a very modern-looking, sharp complex,” Low adds. “And Krispy Kreme has been trying to break into this market for years now, so it'll be a good fit.”

Low also credits city officials and the availability of TIF dollars from the redevelopment area for helping make the deal work.

“A lot of projects just don't work without TIF, especially sites that have been vacant for some time,” he says. “Market conditions will tell you what needs to happen with a property, but as an investor or a developer you also need to be flexible enough to change your plans or adapt to evolving situations.”

City officials say they're extremely pleased with the planned development.

“I think it'll be a beautiful project that will meet a real consumer demand,” says Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson. “There's a lot of pent-up demand for new retail here, as well as higher-end apartments.

“But even more, I think this project is an indication of what's going on in many parts of the city,” the mayor adds. “It's my hope that this becomes a spark plug that ignites other investor confidence, people who might be on the sidelines right now, thinking about doing something here.”

Aileron isn't the only development firm considering building in downtown Fort Myers, either.

Miami-based Jaxi Builders has plans for a 15-story residential tower with 24 units there, and another developer is readying plans for an 18-story building with 133 units.

“Once the momentum gets going, I've found, it's like a domino effect,” Henderson says. “One project can inspire a lot of synergy in the marketplace.”

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