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City of Fort Myers takes back ownership of historic City of Palms Park

City of Palms Park has been an iconic landmark in Fort Myers since it was constructed nearly 30 years ago.
Lee County
City of Palms Park has been an iconic landmark in Fort Myers since it was constructed nearly 30 years ago.

The City of Palms Park is once again the property of Fort Myers after the city council voted to repossess it during last week’s meeting.

Yearly revenues for the ballpark are a fraction of the cost of upkeep, which totals around half a million dollars, so Lee County planned to demolish the property. In early September, the City of Fort Myers requested that Lee County not demolish it and instead convey ownership of the stadium back to the city.

“We're still making payments, principal payments through December of 2022,” Fort Myers City Council Member Fred Burson said. “So, I just hate to tear it down before we have it paid for and then decide later that we want to build something else back there that we could’ve used the existing offices for.”

Fort Myers conveyed ownership of the ballpark to Lee County in 2003, when the Boston Red Sox, who the stadium was built for, were still using it for spring training. The Red Sox moved to JetBlue Park in February 2012 and Lee County struggled to find a use for the City of Palms Park before signing a 10-year lease with Florida SouthWestern State College in May 2014.

“We want to stay in the stadium, at least for the next year. We've had great success there and we think people have enjoyed going to ballgames at the stadium,” FSW’s attorney, Joe Coleman, said in a Fort Myers City Council Meeting in August. “We're currently your tenant, we pay rent. Yes, it's de minimis, but we do pay rent, and we keep the facility in good shape.”

The vote to take back the park was 3-2; a close call, as Council Members Jonny Streets and Darla Bonk voted against repossessing the ballpark.

“I'm still pretty averse to it. I am trying to understand where those who are very much advocating for us to keep the park, where they're coming from and understand what their vision is,” Bonk said. “For me, I have concerns with how we are going to make money on the City of Palms Park. I understand it’s a historic property, for me, I think there's a better way to leverage that land, to spur some redevelopment opportunities, while still keeping the heart of that community.”

One of the advocates who has been a presence at many of the discussions surrounding the ballpark is Madison Vogelbach, a local citizen who works in communications and community outreach for Wilbur Smith. Vogelbach has urged the Fort Myers City Council to take back ownership of the ballpark and cancel demolition since as far back as August.

“The city of Fort Myers and its 96,851 and growing, proud residents would like the City of Palms Park returned to us untouched, upright and unscathed,” Vogelbach said. “We as a city deserve better than bulldozers and inside baseball, we deserve our ballpark back and for you our leaders to figure out how to repurpose it so that it can serve the public who paid for it in the first place.”

Vogelbach got her wish, but the current stay of demolition will only allow the ballpark to stand for another year. The city can still choose to tear down the iconic stadium.

“As counsel we made a decision to take it back and in doing so, we've bought ourselves another year before it has to be demolished, if it's to be demolished,” Burson said. “And if we do decide to do that within the next year, the county will still contribute $1 million to the demolition of the stadium.”

Whether the City of Palms Park is eventually demolished, baseball will still have a place in Fort Myers.

“Baseball’s been in Fort Myers since the 1920s when Connie Mack first bought the Philadelphia A’s to town,” Burson said. “And then it was the Cleveland Indians and then it was the Pittsburgh Pirates, Kansas City Royals, Minnesota Twins and the Red Sox. So, we've always had baseball for the last century.”

This story was produced by Democracy Watch, a news service of Florida Gulf Coast University journalism students. The reporter can be reached at spsalovitz9028@eagle.fgcu.edu.