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Fort Myers council members want detailed plans for Midtown and City of Palms Park

For nearly two decades, the City of Palms Park attracted baseball fans eager to see the Boston Red Sox in spring training at the edge of downtown Fort Myers. The main stadium’s 8,200 seats filled with tourists and Floridians alike from 1993 to 2011. While Florida SouthWestern State College baseball used the stadium for its games after the Red Sox moved to JetBlue Park, the City of Fort Myers is reimagining what could become of the once-legendary baseball stadium and the surrounding area.

The City of Fort Myers has recently accepted proposals for how to use Midtown, which would affect what becomes of the stadium and surrounding buildings. With Florida being a major tourist attraction, the city believes it could make significant revenue off the land.

Three firms submitted proposals to the city, promoting their companies. A committee of city staff that evaluated the proposals met on Monday, August 29, and ranked them based on several qualifications including financial capacity of the firm, project approach, and qualifications of key personnel. CBRE, the world’s largest real estate services and investment firm, ranked first.

Several Fort Myers city council members expressed concerns at a meeting this week. They said the proposals didn’t offer plans or visions for Midtown. The members said all three companies marketed themselves well, but made no concrete suggestions.

Councilman Fred Burson wants the companies to present their ideas.

“That’s a huge contract and if I’m going to be responsible, I want to say that I’ve listened to everybody,” he said at the council meeting. Other council members agreed, and asked the city staff to try to set up public presentations by the three bidders, and any other development firms that might have plans for Midtown.

Burson said that taxpayer dollars are being used for the upkeep of City of Palms Park with no profit coming in, despite the value of the property.
The City of Fort Myers said maintaining the stadium and surrounding grounds costs about $20,000 a month, or roughly $240,000 a year. Those costs include electricity and water, basic maintenance and repairs, taxes and operations.

Gary Tasman, founder of Cushman and Wakefield Commercial Property Southwest Florida, said Midtown could act as a business district, using buildings such as McCollum Hall, City of Palms Park, the News- Press building, and possibly City Hall. “I believe that we could be in a position where the city could become a world class central business district,” he said. Tasman's company ranked second among the bidders, according to the city staff review committee.

Burson said that when Fort Myers starts rebuilding Midtown, he’s going to do everything he can to maintain the three floors containing the office section of the park. He hopes offices in the park can be repurposed, and that apartments can be built on some of the land.

“I mean, I myself, I'm a baseball person, and if I felt there was any way that we could make economic sense out of keeping it as a ballpark, I'd be the first guy in line,” Burson said.

He said it’s unfair to the taxpayer that the park uses public funding for upkeep without bringing in profit. If the park is transferred to private development, he said the city could generate millions of dollars for development costs, and ultimately gain revenue on taxing whatever may be developed on an annual basis.

Tom Browne lives in Port Charlotte, but was visiting Fort Myers. He encourages the City of Fort Myers to rebuild Midtown. He said it would benefit the city if the stadium and the rest of the area can be used for businesses to bring in revenue and more people.

“[The park is] actually a liability to us because we have to maintain it, but it doesn't generate any revenue. So we just, we need to do something,” he said.

Kara Miniaci works at Mason’s Famous Lobster Rolls, just three minutes from the stadium. She said she feels upset that taxpayer money pays for upkeep on a stadium that isn’t being used.

“I feel like it's just a waste of money if there's nothing benefiting from it, honestly,” she said.

Since Fort Myers is growing, she said the city should sell the land to private companies for businesses such as restaurants and hotels.

“A thing to bring you more people can’t be bad,” Tom Browne said. “I mean, I didn’t come down here to live in the boonies, you know? If I did that, I’d be living in the middle of the state.”

Burson said that since Fort Myers requested proposals, there's been unsolicited interest from companies wanting to buy property in the area. He said the city has received written proposals from companies wanting to buy city-owned buildings, such as several offers for the old News-Press building on the intersection of Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard and Fowler Street.

“That's all generated as a result of us putting out the [request for proposals], saying we wanted to do something and people are just trying to actually be first in line to get it done, so that's been good,” he said.