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Part of the Harborside Event Center parking lot will become an extension of the Caloosahatchee this summer.
Part of the Harborside Event Center parking lot will become an extension of the Caloosahatchee this summer. / special to news-press.com

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Fort Myers city officials have spent years planning a downtown utopia, complete with extended waterfront, a bubbling fountain, hand railings modeled after mangrove roots and quaint trolleys that shuttle visitors to and from bars and restaurants.

What began as an idea in 2003 is expected to be reality by the end of this summer, says Don Paight, executive director of the Fort Myers Redevelopment Agency. Construction should begin in March to avoid interference with downtown events such the Edison Festival of Light. That’s assuming the contractors’ bids are in accordance with the city’s approved budget of $5.4 million for the initial phase of the project. The contractors involved submitted their bids more than a week ago and the city is calculating the expected cost, Paight said.

“I think it’s one of the most significant things that’s happened in the history of the city and I think it’s going to change the city for the better,” Mayor Randy Henderson said.

A new water detention basin will bring the Caloosahatchee River up to Bay Street and give downtown an additional 1,500 feet of riverfront property, expected to provide the area with 195 construction jobs and 120 permanent jobs. The water will cut through the Harborside Event Center parking lot and flow under Edwards Drive, which will be converted into a brick-paved bridge. The area around the basin will resemble a park with decorative railings and lights.

“We’ve got this beautiful river and we park our cars on it,” Paight said.

The project will bring the river back to its historic front. Water used to reach as far as Bay and First streets, but the water was so shallow residents had to build long piers to dock and unload ships coming in. In the early 1900s the city began filling in the riverfront to get to the deeper water farther out, Paight said.

The budgeted $5.4 million for the water basin will mostly come from city capital improvement funds and money left over from the street-scape project.

City officials hope the rest of the Harborside parking lot not used by the water basin will eventually be taken up by a 200-room hotel connected to the convention center. City officials have been talking to several chains, including Marriott, Hyatt and Hilton.

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Between the Harborside Event Center parking lot and the Edwards Drive lot, the project will do away with between 150 and 160 parking spaces. Many people who live, work and visit downtown expressed concern that the construction would make parking more difficult, but the city is planning two new parking garages that will have a total of 800 spaces, Paight said.

Meanwhile, a small parking lot will likely be set up off Hendry Street near the Art of the Olympians museum and another larger lot will be near the corner of Bay and Hendry streets. There would likely be a charge for the new lots and garages, but the amount has yet to be determined.

Greg Courtot, a bartender at Hideaway Sports Bar on Dean Street, said he is worried about where customers will park once the lots are replaced with water.

“As long as parking’s available and not too far away then I’m happy,” he said. “I just can’t see it all going according to plan.”

'Minimal' disruption

The city plans minimal disturbance to downtown businesses during construction, Paight said. Edwards Drive will be closed, but other traffic should be unaffected. If a truck affiliated with the project is caught going through the center of downtown, it will be charged with fines of up to $5,000.

Courtot also expressed concern about the aesthetic value of the water basin.

“It just attracts garbage,” Courtot said, noting he saw that effect firsthand in a similar detention basin where he used to live in St. Petersburg. “You get your high tide and your low tide, so that’s going to generate a smell.”

Paight said regularly-cleaned filters will prevent garbage from accumulating. The water level will be controlled so it never fluctuates more than about a foot, he said.

The water basin also will eventually be bordered by 3-4 restaurant fronts along Hendry. A block away, at the corner of Bay and Jackson streets, the city plans to build a parking garage and 5-6 storefronts and residential units. As an extra incentive to open stores and restaurants in those areas, the city has gotten federal income tax breaks approved for private developers, Paight said. All that development, including the water basin, is expected to bring more traffic downtown that will result in an extra $76 million per year spent at downtown businesses. The city’s total expense will be about $150 million.

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The detention basin also will provide environmental benefits by filtering storm runoff of nearby streets and businesses before it enters the Caloosahatchee River. Plants along the basin’s edge will strain out chemicals from fertilizer runoff, filters and a sediment pool will collect trash, rocks and dirt and a fountain will aerate the water.

Trollies arrive

In a separate project, the city is hoping to see new trollies on the streets of downtown within the next few months. Initially, operating mostly on weekend nights, the trollies will give free rides between downtown and the nearby high-rise condominiums so visitors don’t have to worry about parking or driving drunk. The $300,000 project has been funded by LeeTran and local high-rise developers, Paight said.

Bonnie Willer, who opened a jewelry store called Cat’s Meow five months ago on First Street, said she expects the riverfront project to bring her new business. Right now no one even knows downtown Fort Myers exists, she said, but hopefully that will change soon.

“Everybody wants to see something new,” she said. “So they’ll come take a look.”

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