There's progress. But what about the 24-story sore thumb?
Fort Myers is more than halfway through a $72-million project that includes adding brick streets. [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
By the early 1980s, like many small American cities, Fort Myers found itself with a run-down downtown. Stores had fled to sites in malls, and businesses moved to suburban office parks.
The city, spurred on by then-rookie councilwoman Veronica Shoemaker, began the long slog of revitalization with a series of federal grants that funded the creation of Centennial Park along the Caloosahatchee River and other infrastructure improvements. “There was a lot of blight. Even the yacht basin was run-down,” says Shoemaker. “We took it project by project.”
The city adopted a redevelopment plan and created the Fort Myers Redevelopment Agency, but made slow headway until around 2001. Two factors accelerated progress: The city hired Miami’s Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., the New Urbanism consulting and planning firm, to write a new redevelopment plan. And real estate began booming.
Today, even with the real estate market in the doldrums, the city’s downtown has come a long way. To the north and south of the historic downtown core are some 1,400 new condos in eight towers. The city is also more than halfway through a $72-million utilities and streetscape plan — due to be finished next year — that includes underground utilities and brick streets. To serve the new condo dwellers, a new Publix shopping center opened on McGregor Boulevard last November, just two blocks from the river.
Also downtown, a 10-story criminal justice center is under construction and an Art of the Olympians gallery showing works created by Olympic athletes will open soon. A $4-million project is also under way that’s transforming the city’s old post office into a cultural arts center.
Since the Duany plan was approved, Don Paight, executive director of the Fort Myers Redevelopment Agency, estimates the downtown district has had more than $800-million worth of construction. Soon, he says, the amount will top $1 billion.
Economic developers say the $25-million asking price is too high. The Thangsumphant family paid $6.7 million for the hotel in 1993 [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
While the real estate bust has cooled condo building for the moment, perhaps the biggest challenge facing the redevelopment effort sits smack in the heart of downtown at 2500 Edwards Drive. Opened in 1987, the 24-story, coral-colored Amtel Ambassador Riverfront Hotel was once an important downtown business, attracting tourists and conventions.
The redevelopment plan envisions a major hotel presence, but the Ambassador has become a thumb in the plan’s eye rather than a catalyst for development. Purchased in 1993 by the Amtel Group of Florida, a company controlled by the resort-developing Thangsumphant family of Thailand, the hotel was once a Sheraton and later a Ramada. It became the Ambassador in 2005.
The family’s operation of the hotel has been less than four-star. Former guests, posting reviews on online travel sites such as tripadvisor.com and expedia.com, rave about the waterfront views but sometimes complain about the hotel being outdated. One example: The rooms still have wall-mounted air-conditioning units. “Was obviously once a GREAT hotel, but staff seems to do the best they can with what they have to work with,” wrote one expedia.com reviewer. A tripadvisor.com reviewer was less diplomatic: “It was clear to me as I entered the hotel that the building had been neglected.”