Rural residents on Friday pleaded for the future of the Lee Civic Center on Bayshore Road in rural North Fort Myers, speaking on behalf of farmers, 4-H club members, and meat and fresh produce enthusiasts .
Inspired by the stories of doom for their rural way of life that have rocked social media in recent days and fueled by a proposal to bring mixed-use development to the fairgrounds, residents spoke passionately about the importance of the civic center in their life and community.
Nineteen people, almost all from eastern Lee County, spoke at a county committee meeting organized to give a first look at the proposals from the county fair association and d ‘a developer who wants property for a resort and a hotel.
All of the speakers who took the mic on Friday urged the county to turn away from a plan by developer Babcock Ranch a few miles away in neighboring Charlotte County that would turn the property into a hotel complex, from offices, stores and stores.
“This is the last standing and remaining area in the county that has not been paved,” said resident Henry Victor, setting the tone for those who spoke after him.
Two proposals for the property were assessed at the meeting. One is from the County Fair Association, officially the Southwest Florida and Lee County Fair Association Inc., the current operator.
Opposition to Babcock Ranch proposal
The only other proposal came from Kitson & Partners Community Acquisitions LLC, a unit of the Palm Beach Gardens-based land development company.
Kitson offers a “complete redevelopment of the site, with the development of additional land” held by Kitson and Partners.
The Kitson Company is building Babcock Ranch, a community of over 19,500 homes in neighboring Charlotte County, a short distance off State Road 31.
A brief submitted by the company was sharply criticized by county committee members as incomplete on the issue of showing how the project would improve civic engagement. Two deputy county directors were part of the five-person panel.
It was too early in the process for a decision on Friday. The session was part of a normal county procedure used to determine whether proposals for the site qualify to proceed to the next stage of the Lee County selection process.
Both requests were authorized by the committee to proceed to the next level of review.
The county has the right to impose conditions and has asked applicants to detail how existing civic functions, 4-H programs and the county fair can be incorporated into the proposals.
Members of the public told the committee of their fears about what would happen to their way of life and the rural character of the eastern part of the county if the county fair association were denied another renewal and if a hotel stood where proud children once demonstrated their newly acquired skills. to raise crops from seeds and animals from birth.
Others also advocated on behalf of 4-H club members, detailing how their children learned to work with others, formed close friendships and developed a sense of responsibility during their time spent in club activities.
The message the residents sent was clear: Turning the county fairground into a modern development is a change they are not ready to see in their rural community.
History of the Lee Civic Center
A 20-year lease between the county and the Southwest Florida and Lee County Fair Association expired last year and was renewed until October to give time to assess the future of the 96-acre site.
The Civic Center and Fair Ownership mean more to the people of East Lee than a place for candied apples, halfway rides, ranching, and award-winning snap beans.
Fair Association President Mike Peak spoke about the impact of the Civic Center and Campaign Fair in rural Lee County and noted that revenue from the 2021 fair which ends on Sunday has significantly increased. increased this year.
The Civic Center property hosts events throughout the year, including the annual Shriner Circus Tour, and local events including weddings, quinceañeras, 4-H exhibits, and trade shows.
Its past includes use as a concert hall. It opened in 1978 and immediately welcomed performers – Lawrence Welk, the Royal Canadians, Minnie Pearl, and Kitty Wells – aimed at an older audience.
After a few years the change started in Chicago, Kiss, Aerosmith and other rock shows. But Peak, of the association of fairs, explained after the meeting that the place had become too small to attract famous artists.
The concerts have moved elsewhere, some to the Hertz Arena and the Suncoast Arena, leaving only smaller-scale shows to put people in the seats.
Soon the seats didn’t matter anymore.
The bleachers were condemned as dangerous in 2015. Without seats, that meant no income for high school diplomas and petty acts.
After Hurricane Irma hit four years ago, the civic center grounds were used as post-hurricane shelter by military personnel and utility workers, and the fair’s association highlights its place in emergency organization after a hurricane as something the county needs in North Fort Myers.
The ability to use the fairgrounds as a shelter may not be as strong a selling point as it was before the new North Fort Myers library.
When the county built the library a few years ago, it was built to be used as a temporary shelter for the types of staff who used the civic center grounds.
County manager Roger Desjarlais and Peak both agreed that the fair’s association does not have the funding to improve the facilities. The county fixed a failing air conditioning system several years ago and gave the association a loan earlier.
Desjarlais was the first to speak at the meeting, his mission appearing to attempt to address the anguish of the 20 or so people who took a Friday afternoon to champion the culture of their neighborhood.
“Some people may have told you the decisions probably come here,” the county manager said. “It is not true.”
The five-member panel advanced both apps, finding some issues with each. However, deputy county directors Marc Mora and Glen Salyer found the Kitson plan lacking in detail.
“I need them to explain it to us in more depth,” Salyer said.
Mora said pieces were missing from the Kitson proposal, particularly its failure to include details of how a civic element of the new development would be implemented.
The county has owned most of the Civic Center site for 46 years.
He purchased the main plot, which includes the Civic Center, various outbuildings, and the parking lot for $ 245,000 in 1975. The Civic Center was opened, as Kickapoo Ranch Arena, in December 1978 and changed its name to Lee Civic Center in 1981.
An 11-acre site adjacent to the main fairground property was part of a larger parcel that the fair association purchased for $ 280,000 in 2014. Five acres of this parcel were sold to another party in 2014. 2016.
The proposed uses of the site will now be subject to further consideration before any recommendations can be made to the County Commissioners Council, which has the final say on the future of the site.