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Waterfront stimulus

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  • | 7:56 p.m. August 27, 2009
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Fort Myers has grand plans for its waterfront. Now if only the capital markets would cooperate.

The vision: Office buildings, a convention-center hotel, shops, restaurants, and a trolley that loops around downtown Fort Myers' waterfront.

The challenge: Capital markets are frozen and municipalities are cutting back on spending.

This vision comes from a group of consultants hired by Fort Myers to propose ideas for downtown land that hugs the Caloosahatchee River. Business executives with the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce recently got a sneak peek at a packed lunch meeting.

Douglas Smith, the man leading the project for Michigan-based Acquest Realty Advisors, got right to the heart of the challenge: “How are we going to pay for this? I'm not going to answer that today.”

But Smith suggested that taxpayer money would play a significant role in luring private investors back to downtown. Already, the city has spent four years and $60 million reconstructing the decaying utilities and streets in a 50-block area. That project is ending just as the region experiences one of the sharpest economic downturns in recent memory.

“The steroids have been banned,” Smith says, using a baseball analogy for the cheap financing that helped developers in the recent boom. But Smith says the “i.v. drip” from state and federal stimulus grants could help revive eight acres of city-owned land and buildings, including a plan to expand the Harborside Event Center. “Those things will be critical to put in place,” Smith says.

In fact, there's a broad range of public-financing options, from local tax-increment financing to state corporate-tax credits to federal-stimulus funds. Then, there are local tourism bed-tax dollars and county economic-development funds. “There's a lot of tools available to us,” Smith says.

The city council approved using taxes generated by downtown property owners to pay Acquest and a group of architects and engineers about $700,000 to create the plan. The group plans to present its findings to the city council on Aug. 31. “The public sector needs to benefit greatly,” Smith says, noting that the economic impact of the project could be in the $58 million to $67 million range.

The first part of the project will likely be the expansion of Harborside Event Center by about 20% and a water basin that will handle storm water runoff and be a visual extension to the river, says Don Paight, executive director of the Fort Myers Redevelopment Agency.

“We're going to have to do this in phases,” Paight says. If Harborside can be expanded and the basin constructed, there's a better chance a convention center-hotel can be built by a private developer. “Marriott has a real interest in the project,” Smith told executives at the chamber.

Once the convention center and hotel are completed, the pedestrian traffic will increase enough to attract shops and restaurants. “We need to get bodies on the street,” says Smith. The convention center will fill a niche for regional conferences and sports gatherings, he says.

During the boom, downtown boosters expected condominiums to generate pedestrian traffic. But speculators bought many of the new condo units that were built and many later defaulted on their contracts, delaying retail development.

Smith says Fort Myers has several advantages. Because of the construction downturn, building costs have fallen by 25% or more. A publicly backed convention center-hotel would be attractive to a developer because it would also create an economic barrier for prospective competitors. And the long-term demographic and population shifts from the Midwest to the South are still sound.

While the exact costs of the project are still being worked out, Paight believes the waterfront project could be completed within the next five years. “Hopefully we'll hit it at the point the market is coming back,” Paight says.


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