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Much of the Harborside Event Center parking lot is a construction site, meaning farther walks to nearby bars are much more likely to be necessary.
Much of the Harborside Event Center parking lot is a construction site, meaning farther walks to nearby bars are much more likely to be necessary. / Amanda Inscore/news-press.com

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Parking in downtown Fort Myers gets competitive on weekend nights and special events — and closing a parking lot to make way for construction has made it worse.

On March 12, the city began work on its riverfront development project, which will create two water detention basins and more waterfront property downtown. The first step was to close off half of the Harborside Event Center parking lot, where many downtown patrons park not just during weekends but also for weekday lunches. Temporary lots planned to ease parking strain during construction had to be eliminated when the project price was more than what the city could afford. Now on a typical Friday night, cars circle the lot looking for spaces or park illegally between garbage bins.

Coming downtown is no longer worth it for several patrons of the Hideaway Sports Bar on Dean Street. Tisha Mason, bar manager, said each week since the construction began, four or five of her regular lunch customers have told her they won’t be back because it’s too hard to park.

The City of Palms Garage is just up the street from the Harborside lot, as are two additional lots by the water — which the city points out in signs taped to the Harborside parking meters.

Mason said the signs are too little, too late. The city should have pointed out additional parking with large, prominent signs and arrows before the construction began.

“People are frustrated with the situation,” Mason said.

Frank Johnson, 67, of Fort Myers Beach, said it sometimes takes him 10 minutes to park when he visits the Hideaway.

Crown Valet Parking set up shop downtown when the construction began, and now visitors can have their cars parked for $8 on weekend nights and during special events. Ford’s Garage, The Morgan House Restaurant and the Spirits of Bacchus pay the company so their patrons can park for free. The service has stayed busy, parking 25 cars a night on a weekend, said valet attendant Chris Lodes.

Jeffrey Muench, general manager of the newly opened Ford’s Garage at Dean and First streets, said the main problem with taking away Harborside parking is the lack of parking options for employees. His employees are getting ticketed and towed during work because the city doesn’t offer any employee parking passes or special rates.

“We’re going to have to come up with something,” Muench said.

The parking problem has a silver lining, though, as it signals the revitalization of a downtown that wasn’t always so packed.

“I think it’s the cost of being a busy downtown,” Muench said.

The city hopes to eventually build two new garages, with 800 spaces, but that is not included in phase one of the project.

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