Community members at the Fort Myers Yacht Basin express concerns about redevelopment of the marina
Dozens of people who live at the Fort Myers Yacht Basin showed up to express their concerns and have questions answered by Fort Myers City Council member Liston Bochette and City Manager Marty Lawing. The turnout from the community was in regard to the City of Fort Myers' request for proposals for developers to manage, lease and/or redevelop the basin. The meeting was held the evening of April 27.
The city has heard from five developers offering changes to the marina. Changes include, but are not limited to, demolishing the current yacht basin and building a new marina with stores, restaurants, and other buildings.
“The City of Fort Myers is thinking about giving away one of the most valuable pieces of property that they own to someone that's going to be here to change the marina,” Marcia Schwalm said. “The city should own up and be responsible for their property. We can make this property a beautiful marina without the help of any developers from outside.” Schwalm said she has owned the hair salon in the marina for 13 years, but her business has been in downtown Fort Myers for 38 years.
Many residents who call the yacht basin home expressed discomfort about what will happen to them if the marina is sold to developers.
“None of us know what's going to happen if the developers come in,” Schwalm said. “That's why we're all here being concerned, because it's all such an unknown fact.”
Residents at the meeting also said they felt blindsided by the city’s request for proposals from developers.
“I'm very unhappy with it,” resident Gregory Shepard said. “I think they are selling us a bunch of bad fish. They've rushed this through with intent.” Shepard said he's lived in the Fort Myers area since 1987 and has been in the marina for about six years.
People who live on the marina also said they worry that their current leases will not be renewed. “We can't have a lease,” Schwalm said. “We'd have no guarantees that we can stay here if they turn it over to a developer.”
Councilmember Bochette said he would ask each developer what they can guarantee for the well-being of concerned residents. “There’s question one I can take to the meeting tomorrow,” Bochette said in reference to a session with potential developers on April 28. “What are you going to do for the liveaboards and the businesses?”
Many residents of the marina also said the city has been intentionally avoiding upkeep of the marina for years. “They've run the marina down for probably the last 15 years,” Shepard said. “They've only put $800,000 into the Marina for repairs in 12 years. So, this marina being downgraded, and rundown is with intent so they could pull out and have it privatized, so they can release themselves from the liability.
Marina resident Bill Westberry agreed that the city has been quietly working toward selling the property. “Several of the city staffers have been trying to move this along as quickly and quietly as possible,” Westberry said. “The evidence of that is not renewing slip rental contracts, not doing proper maintenance, not enforcing what we call marina housekeeping rules, and not even publishing our monthly newsletter, which used to inform us about something like this.”
Bochette said the voices of residents are being heard. “I work for you guys,” Bochette said. “I was elected to be the advocate. The worst thing you want is a decision made without any voice. So at least now we're moving in the right way. This is a step in the right direction.”
Another concern residents brought up at the meeting was the city never seeing profit from selling property to big developers. Speakers said they were referring to selling property for the building of the Luminary Hotel on the Caloosahatchee River.
“They've done everything on the waterfront and sold to all the big corporations,” Shepard said. “Big corporations come in and eat them alive and they're going to do it again, right here at the marina.”
Shepard is not alone in this opinion.
“People need to know about marina management, engineering construction, and water,” Westberry said. “These big companies will roll over Fort Myers like a steamroller.”
The developers and the city council had a special meeting April 28 to listen to five developers' proposals. Several private and public partnership proposals of between $40 million and $50 million were on the table.
Safe Harbor Marinas made a proposal. It included the average median household income of their 42,000 members around the country. That number is $314,500 a year.
This raised concern about displacement of the current people who live on the marina. There are 241 tenants in the Fort Myers Yacht Basin. Of those about 60 are full-time liveaboards, with the average age being in the mid-60’s. “They're talking about how they're going to protect all the voters, but they're actually not because once they raise the rates, most of these people won't be able to stay here,” Shepard said.
If or when displacement occurs, residents worry where they will go and what it will cost. “There's no slips available anywhere around,” Shepard said. “I went on last night and looked for slips, there's none available. If you just go to another marina, it's as high as $25 a foot and no one can pay $25 a foot.”
Although residents have concerns, most agree that upgrades at the basin need to happen.
“I think the idea of the improvements for the basin are fantastic,” resident at the Yacht Basin Ron Schivinski said. “It's just that it seems to be on a fast track, and it's a lot to swallow right now." He said his neighbors' concerns are valid. “Their concerns are genuine that, again, it's coming fast and furious,” Schivinski said. “There's no doubt that improvements to the basin are needed, but just the cost and who's paying for it and the timing are certainly a concern.”
Schivinski, a four-year resident of the yacht basin, said he's not certain about his future. “If the per-foot cost goes up to where it's no longer advantageous for me to stay here, and I was forced to move my boat, I'm not really sure where I would go,” Schivinski said. “Marinas are experiencing rising costs. So, it would involve finding another marina to go to and I'm not really sure where that would be.”
Another concern residents brought up was the potential environmental impact of such a large project. “This thing has the potential to be an environmental nightmare,” Westberry said. “The marina is 80 years old. People have been dumping crankcases, old diesel, and other chemicals in the marina for years. It settles at the bottom and when they go dredge it out, it's going to drift downstream, kill fish, manatees, seagrass, etc. It makes water quality worse and that's why most of us moved to Florida.”
However, other community members don’t have their concerns set on the environmental impact it may have. “Once a dredging crew gets a permit and they have insurance, they can do whatever they want and an insurance company will answer to it,” Shepard said. “But every marina is allowed to be dredged, every channel is allowed to be dredged and yes, there's going to be environmental concerns. But I don't think anybody's concerned as much as they say. It just sounds like a talking point.”
Residents questioned the councilmember and the city manager about why they have to reach out to outsiders when they can repair the marina themselves. “You know what our problem is? Growth,” Bochette said. “We're under attack from everybody who wants to live here and move here. That means the city's got some water and garbage pickup and roads and everything. The budget is big, but it's deficit.”
The residents at the marina also voiced concerns about the city’s historic charm being diminished because of developers modernizing the yacht basin. “The marina is a historical place, and we just need to keep it nice, clean, and simple, where everyone in the city and visitors around this country can come and enjoy this marina,” Schwalm said.
Councilman Bochette said that historical preservation is one of his criteria when listening to the developers' presentations. “Part of this is under HPC; historical preservation,” Bochette said. “It can't be changed.” When asked which parts were protected, the councilman was uncertain. “HPC (Historic Preservation Commission) has got to tell us what is protected,” Bochette said. “It’s not like you’re going to come up one day and everything's gone.”
Residents raised questions about what the criteria are for the council when it comes to picking a proposal. “We've got seven people that vote,” Bochette said. “If you want to talk to those seven, you need four of them on your side... That's democracy.”
Regardless of the assurance that their voices matter, some people at the marina said they don’t feel like their best interest is being looked out for. “They are tearing down what’s beautiful and giving it to the highest bidder,” said liveaboard at the Yacht Basin Erika Westberry.
Bill Westberry said that in 2014 the city had a serious consideration to privatize the Fort Myers Yacht Basin. This raised a public outcry eight years ago. He said a lot of the residents went to the city council to plead their case and the council backed off any plans. Now, Westberry says, the situation seems to be beyond resident's control. "It's in the city council's hands right now,” Westberry said. “That's where it's at. Rebuild it. Manage it properly. Leave the politics out of it.”
The city council is scheduled to vote on one of the developers' proposals on June 6, 2022.
Bochette reiterated that he was there to represent the people and bring their concerns to the rest of the council and the developers. “I was born here, and I grew up here all my life,” Bochette said. “It means a lot to me to be in Fort Myers. Number one is defense of our culture, our heritage, and our identity.”
Despite the words of affirmation from the city leader, some residents at the Yacht Basin remained skeptical.
“These people are elected to represent people and they're not,” yacht basin resident Ron Fedor said. “They're representing some other interests. What's best for the people is really not what's at stake here today and it's a tragedy.”