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Special to The News Press

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A $5.4 million project to renovate the downtown Fort Myers waterfront will provide the infrastructure and ambience to attract more events and a hotel — with the ultimate goal for the city to regain its once-thriving convention business.

That’s what city and event officials say about the project, which is in the engineering phase now and scheduled to be completed by July. It will feature water retention ponds with fountains, landscaping that matches the streetscaping in other parts of downtown, and also pumps up the availability of water, electricity and wireless access to the Internet.

“The purpose of the basin is to attract events and retail shops, and we’re in discussion with three or four companies for a hotel” to be be built on what’s now the Harborside Event Center parking lot, said Don Paight, executive director of the Fort Myers Redevelopment Agency.

But those are only steps on the path to bringing the convention business back to life, he said.

“Up until the mid-’90s, when the Sheraton was downtown, we were hosting a lot of conventions, 22 or 23 a year by 1996,” Paight said.

But the Sheraton fell into disrepair, lost its brand by that hotel chain and has been closed for years.

Without the hotel, Fort Myers lost its ability to attract conventions of up to 500 or 600 people, Paight said.

Sharon McAllister, director of ArtFest Fort Myers, said some of the most important changes coming are things the average festival-goer never sees.

For example, she said, “There are electrical pedestals with enough amperage that we don’t have to bring in a generator and have cables everywhere.”

The changes will make it easier to compete for events now being held elsewhere, she said. As an event planner, “You look at their infrastructure, equipment, all those things. Is there power? Are there drains? How do I access this place?”

Jim Powell, senior estimator and project manager for Wright Construction, the project’s construction manager, said it will enhance the waterfront for more casual users as well.

Two water features will double as pollution abatement as they filter runoff before it flows into the Caloosahatchee, he said, and they’re designed to make it a more inviting place to simply walk around.

“It’s going to be quite a lovely place,” Powell said. “I love to walk around downtown anyway and this is just going to enhance it for me and my family. Those people who go down there will enjoy this thing.”

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