Dennis Fullenkamp wants to bring a piece of paradise to North Fort Myers.
The veteran developer envisions a small marina on the Caloosahatchee River, at the end of Orange Grove Boulevard and the abandoned Paradise Preserve Golf Course, as the central amenity of Paradise Isle, a 270-acre, mixed-use development wedged between the river and the Cape Coral city limit.
That's because Paradise Isle would be the first significant development in North Fort Myers since the recession. Plans for the property by a previous developer were abandoned after a 2007 foreclosure — at the time the largest ever in Lee County. Built in 1972, the golf course closed in 2006 and remains bordered by existing homes that were part of the original Paradise Preserve master plan.
"I see this as the engine to drive perception change in north Lee County," Fullenkamp says. "That whole area is disposable income looking for service that you don't have to cross over the river to find.”
Fullenkamp acquired the property in 2015 for $7 million. He's now pursuing rezoning along with environmental permitting to deepen and expand the marina and create an island-like core surrounded by residential towers and associated amenities. The golf course, being redesigned by famed golf architect Ron Garl, will be shortened to about 6,000 yards and Paradise Marina expanded from 69 to 200 wet slips plus a 200-boat dry storage facility. Overall proposed residential density is 5.4 units per acre.
The existing 2.4-acre marina basin will be expanded to about 10 acres and serve as a source for runoff pre-treatment in underground storage beneath the basin. A bridge will connect the rest of the development to the new island.
Progress is being made . Fullenkamp estimates final zoning approvals by Lee County and permitting from the Army Corps of Engineers will require another 18 months. Meanwhile, he has already received inquiries from global hospitality groups to operate the planned seven-story, 309-room hotel and fractional ownership condos. Garl and his team have been redesigning the golf course to include an expansive practice area and clubhouse.
It’s all long overdue for the area, says Fullenkamp, adding the project should be a catalyst for redevelopment along the north bank of the river.
“We're hoping we can influence change here,” says Fullenkamp. “We want to influence regeneration and make this a magnet area for investment and to appeal to redevelopment. I call it a reinvention, trying to do what so many other coastal areas have done and that's take an area that is maybe a little bit tired, dress it up and make it feel good about itself. It’s an energizer. It's an engine, and it's what we need up here.”
Fullenkamp has been approached by national homebuilders to buy the 136 acres of golf course and build homes on the land. But he doesn’t consider that the highest and best use of the property adjacent to 270 acres with riverfront access.
“If we can create something with a little more magic, a little stronger than Paradise Preserve was, that will enhance the perception of the entire area,” says Fullenkamp.
According to plans filed with the county, in addition to the expanded marina and dry storage, Paradise Isle would include two 20-story, 300-unit multifamily buildings; two 12-story, 100-unit towers; three-story townhomes; garage parking at the base of the residential towers; and a 16-acre “island” for mixed uses including 100,000 square feet of retail, restaurant and office space. “We want to take the perception, the feel, all the way up to Hancock and get it to run up and down Hancock,” says Fullenkamp. “
Chief among concerns expressed about the project is traffic along the residential Orange Grove Boulevard. Fullenkamp shares those, pledging to redesign the road connecting Paradise Isle to Hancock Bridge Parkway into a scenic drive with traffic softening devices such as roundabouts and chicanes. The idea is to create an atmosphere that will encourage slow driving and enjoyment of the scenery.
“We want to encourage more friendly trips,” says Fullenkamp. “It’s like Fifth Avenue in Naples. You drive 5 miles an hour, and that’s want you want to encourage, a sense of place that you’ve arrived.”