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Current Grand Resorts concept falls to the wayside

Torgerson says he will not file an application, starts over

April 12, 2016
By John Morton - Editor (jmorton@breezenewspapers.com) , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

It's back to the drawing board for Tom Torgerson, who on Tuesday said he is pulling the plug on his intent to file an application with the town for the construction of the current form of his $250 million Grand Resorts project.

Here are his words:

"(Partner) John (Dammermann) and I will not come forward with an application representative of our last concept, and we do not have a timeline for developing a new concept. However, we remain hopeful that a new concept will ultimately be supported by the town while being financially viable for us. There are significant challenges with developing a new concept, it will take some time to do so. Whatever we do ultimately put forth most likely will not involve Crescent Beach Park nor re-routing of Estero Boulevard nor include a conference center.

Article Photos

Tom Torgerson of TPI Hospitality speaks during a Grand Resorts presentation on Fort Myers Beach.

"We do feel that what the downtown core district needs to enhance its vitality are lodging units versus more retail, restaurants, bars and T-shirt shops. High-quality lodging units that have strong national/international marketing infrastructure will improve business for this core district year round and especially out of season, when they most need it. Lodging units also represent a type of use that is least impactful to traffic. We will likely compliment the lodging usage with some public parking and scaled back on site food and beverage. We will also likely propose something that can be enhanced by the coastal protection system (CPS) but isn't dependent upon it. We may likely put forward the CPS for the town's and county's consideration as a means to save the downtown core districts pedestrian grade level desires so consistently stated in the comprehensive plan. The public can decide if it is worthy or not to implement. We have spent around $250,000 solely toward developing the CPS and will likely donate that information for public consideration.

"We have minimal regrets as we reflect back upon the previous redevelopment concept and public process. We actually envision that the future process will benefit tremendously from our having engaged public input the past six months. In the end, we have a strong desire to help unite the community during the future process avoiding divisiveness."

The plan, first unveiled Nov. 30, featured among its amenities four hotels consisting of more than 550 rooms, a pedestrian mall, a four-level parking garage, a roundabout and a 2,000-foot boardwalk complete with seawall. Torgerson projected it would create more than 500 new jobs and bring in $1.6 billion within the first 10 years.

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It went through several changes between then and its final form that Torgerson shared with residents in late February - mainly an adjustment in architecture, transitioning from an urban look to an old-Florida look, and a scaling back from eight stories to six the height of his proposed Hilton Hotel (which had a ground-level floor dedicated to commercial space).

Many argued the density of the project and its height still were non-compliant with the town's comprehensive plan, which limits new construction to four floors..

Meanwhile, over the past year he spent nearly $40 million in property acquisition in the downtown area, needing only the Lee County-owned Crescent Beach Family Park and vacant Seafarer's Plaza to complete his footprint.

Fact Box

The Tom Torgerson timeline

2015

February and March: Learning of the community's desire to develop the aging downtown, and that others had failed to do so in recent years, Tom Torgerson begins to do some research. The CEO of TPI Hospitality, a company that boats 40-plus hotels and convention centers, Torgerson and friend John Dammermann begin to discuss a potential project by laying out documents on the floor of a rented beach property. At the time, Torgerson and his wife, Mari, were also living out of their yacht.

Dammermann, who had gone in on other TPI developments, becomes a 50/50 investor in the plan. Neither Torgerson nor Dammermann moved to Fort Myers Beach with a business venture in mind, they say. As for Torgerson, he had been vacationing in the area since 1991.

March 24: Torgerson purchases the "Sunny Daze" block of buildings, which feature shops including the Cigar Hut, for $6.1 million from local real estate developer Joe Orlandini.

April 1: Torgerson purchases the mostly abandoned Helmerich Plaza for $7.2 million.

April 22: Torgerson becomes controversial when he attempts to build a 100-foot dock off Palermo Circle that intrudes into the navigation channel of Matanzas Bay. A stop-work order is issued by the town when neighbors complain and point out that a navigational marker is missing.

May 27: Torgerson purchases the Mermaid Lounge for $4.5 million.

July 22: Torgerson buys the $2.5 million bayfront home on Palermo Circle, with Orlandini serving as the listing agent. It sits near the back portion of his proposed Grand Resorts project.

Aug. 11: Torgerson purchases the Salty Crab for $3.2 million. The property is listed by Lahaina Realty, which is owned by the wife of former Fort Myers Beach mayor and current Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker.

Aug. 13: Torgerson purchases the Pierview Hotel for $10.9 million, continues to operate under the TPI umbrella.

Nov. 30: Before Lee County Commissioners and members of Fort Myers Beach Town Council (both bodies must approve the project), Torgerson and Dammermann unveil their plan, called Grand Resorts, at a press conference at Florida SouthWestern State College in Fort Myers.

At the center of the $250 million project, that will cover more than 10 acres, are four beachfront hotels - a 176-unit eight-story Hilton resort, a 200-unit Holiday Inn resort, a 100-unit boutique A.C. Marriott resort, and an 86-unit Hampton Inn resort (totaling 562 rooms). On the first floor of each will be ground-level commercial space.

Other features include: A roundabout at the base of the Sky Bridge, eliminating a traffic light and enhancing traffic flow; the re-routing of Estero Boulevard; a four-level parking garage, complete with 1,500 stalls and seven elevators; a skywalk over Estero Boulevard, ensuring pedestrian safety; a pedestrian mall complete with a 1,000-seat convention center, a public fitness center and public spa; a 2,000-foot-long beachfront boardwalk, featuring 10 beach-access points; and a mostly-buried seawall complete with dunes running from the location of the Mermaid Lounge to Lynn Hall Memorial Park.

When completed over the proposed four to five years of construction, Torgerson says the area will see as many as 500 new jobs. Within 10 years, the economic impact for the town could be as high as $1.6 billion, he adds.

He targets the fall of 2016 as a start time for seawall construction.

Beyond the property Torgerson has purchased, he will need the abandoned Seafarer's Mall and Crescent Family Beach Park to complete the project. Lee County owns both properties. At this point, he's already spent more than $40 million in property acquisition, marketing, research, consulting and engineering.

Early December: Torgerson purchases the vacant Ocean Jewel for $2 million and the parking lot next to the Sunset Beach Tropical Grill for $3.75 million.

Dec. 14: Torgerson's team makes its first presentation on Fort Myers Beach, and it's a rough one. Not accepting public comment but instead setting up information stations on different aspects of the project, the overflow crowd of roughly 500 jeers many of the presentation's components. Many also hold protest signs. Held at Silver Hall at the Chapel of the Sea, about half in attendance are forced to stand due to a lack of seating. Furthermore, the hall had no air conditioning.

2016

Jan. 4: Despite not having the money for it in its budget, the Fort Myers Beach Town Council approves the recruitment of a firm to serve as a special projects coordinator with Grand Resorts in mind.

Jan. 14: Moving into the air-conditioned and spacious Bay Oaks gymnasium, Torgerson's second public outreach presentation allows for public questions from the crowd of about 300. Its topics are the seawall and architecture, and his team receives a great deal of criticism from residents on the seawall subject.

Further, Torgerson announces that many significant changes have been made, most notably the removal of a floor of the Hilton Hotel, from seven floors to six and eliminating 43 rooms, and also the removal of a floor of the parking garage, from four to three and eliminating about 350 stalls. Also gone is the Hampton Inn.

The Hilton will also be moved 100 feet from the Marriott, allowing for a plaza and viewing corridor, he says.

Torgerson also says the design will change from the original "South Beach" urban look to an old-world Florida "Key West" look. He shows the crowd of about 300 conceptual renderings of the new look, featuring balconies and columns. He receives a positive reaction from the audience.

Jan. 26: A group of businesses concerned about Grand Resorts and whether or not it will receive special treatment unites, calling itself VOICE of FMB. The group is represented by an executive team of 15 entities, among them some of Fort Myers Beach's most prominent businesses including DiamondHead Resort, the Best Western, the Edison House and the Pink Shell. The group also hires a public relations firm.

Feb. 22: The final public outreach meeting is held, again allowing for direct questions, with zoning, parking and traffic being the topics. All three subjects bring contentious debates from residents.

Before the meeting, Torgerson informs the public that what it will see is a 95-percent completed process with application to the town soon forthcoming.

Eliminated is yet another floor of the Hilton, it now standing at a proposed five with a sixth ground-floor level for commercial, dropping the overall number of rooms for the three-hotel complex to 509.

March 3: During a forum featuring the seven candidates for two Town Council seats, Torgerson asks them if they are open-minded regarding the Grand Resorts proposal knowing they haven't seen an application yet, or against it regardless. Candidates Dennis Boback and Tracey Gore say they are against it in its current form, saying it exceeds the town's comprehensive plan's limitations on height and density and ignores its barring of seawalls, and candidate Ber Stevenson says he's against it altogether.

March 7: Town Manager Don Stilwell announces the town has selected the services of Fort Myers-based Parker Mudgett Smith, an architectural firm, as its special projects coordinator.

March 8: Torgerson announces that Fifth Avenue, first considered a one-way road to eliminate crossover traffic off the roundabout, is now by projected as a two-way road. It will allow drivers to bypass having to go under Grand Resorts' pedestrian overpass if they'd like. He also announces the addition of an outdoor two-way escalator, allowing pedestrians to avoid enclosed stairwells and escalators if they chose.

March 9: Torgerson authors a guest commentary in the Observer, stating that his Grand Resorts plan only calls for three minor deviations to the town's comprehensive plan and qualifies for such under the special circumstances of the project's scope.

March 15: Boback and Gore, who steadfastly championed the town's comprehensive plan, are victorious in the election. Boback becomes mayor as the only person nominated, replacing Anita Cereceda who stays on the council. Cereceda was Torgerson's original contact.

April 12: Torgerson announces he will not proceed with an application based upon his current Grand Resorts concept and no timeline has been established for a new concept.

Torgerson held three public outreach meetings on Fort Myers Beach, each time receiving plenty of skepticism from residents.

Resident Jay Light attended them all and was a vocal opponent of the plan.

"It was the fact he came in with a whole team and a public relations person that scared the hell out of some people," said Light. "If he comes back with a proposal that is compliant, I will be his biggest supporter."

Council member Tracey Gore, who fought against the Grand Resorts concept during her recent election campaign, said the town deserved credit for its defiance.

"I do think the community united to protect the codes and vision we set out to establish," she said of the regulations established at the town's inception in 1995. "He did a good job of presenting his vision to us, but it wasn't what Fort Myers Beach wanted. I think he finally recognized that. He finally heard us."

Mayor Dennis Boback, who also publicly opposed Grand Resorts during his campaign, feels the March 15 election played a role in Torgerson's decision.

"The landscape has changed since the election," Boback said. "Maybe he'll wait until next year's election (when three council seats will be available) to bring it back."

He also feels Torgerson realized that obtaining Crescent Beach Family Park was going to be tough.

"Without that, he doesn't have the room to do what he wants to do," Boback said. "Hopefully, he'll come up with something that can benefit both himself and the town."

Council member Anita Cereceda, who was mayor when the town was established and also again when Torgerson first came forward with his plan, expressed disappointment. She felt his concept would help address the island's traffic gridlock.

"Since the inception of this town, during our comprehensive plan process and every subsequent community-visioning session, this community has looked for a way to realign Estero Boulevard to create a better flow of traffic on and off the island by removing the bulk of pedestrian activity," she said. "It is my greatest hope that we will look forward, beyond where we are now or where we have been in the past, and work toward accomplishing a viable and beautiful entrance to our island and downtown.

"Our ability to work together to formulate the best plan possible for the future of this town will be the legacy that this council leaves for future generations."

 
 

 

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