East Lee residents plead to save fairgrounds, civic center, rural life

A county committee moved forward a proposal to turn the land into a…

East Lee residents plead to save fairgrounds, civic center, rural life 1
East Lee residents plead to save fairgrounds, civic center, rural life 2

Bill Smith
 
| Fort Myers News-Press

Rural residents pleaded Friday for the future of the Lee Civic Center on Bayshore Road in rural North Fort Myers, speaking on behalf of farmers, 4-H club members, and lovers of fresh meat and produce.

Inspired by tales of doom for their rural lifestyle that has roiled social media in recent days and fueled by a proposal to bring mixed-use development to the fairgrounds, residents spoke with passion of the importance of the civic center in their lives and community.

Nineteen people, nearly all of them from eastern Lee County, spoke at a meeting of a county committee organized to give a first review to the proposals from the county fair association and a developer who wants the property for a resort and hotel.

More: Once home to big entertainment stars, North Fort Myers venue adapts

Plus: What will happen to Lee Civic Center? 

All the speakers who took the microphone Friday urged the county to turn away from a plan from the developer of Babcock Ranch a few miles away in nearby Charlotte County that would turn the property into a complex of hotels, offices, shops and stores.

“It is the last standing and last remaining area of the county that has not been paved over,” said resident Henry Victor, setting the tone for those who spoke after him.

Two proposals for the property were evaluated at the meeting. One is from the county fair association, formally the Southwest Florida and Lee County Fair Association Inc., the current operator. 

Opposition to Babcock Ranch proposal

The only other proposal came from Kitson & Partners Community Acquisitions LLC, a unit of the Palm Beach Gardens-based land development company.

Kitson is proposing a “complete site redevelopment, with the enhancement of additional land holdings” held by Kitson and Partners. 

The Kitson firm is building Babcock Ranch, a community of more than 19,500 homes in nearby Charlotte County a short distance away on State Road 31.

A package submitted by the company was sharply criticized by members of the county committee as being incomplete on the issue of showing how the project would enhance civic engagement. Two assistant county managers were on the five-person panel. 

It was too soon in the process for a decision Friday. The session was part of a normal county procedure used to determine whether proposals for the site are qualified to move to the next stage of the Lee County selection process.

The two applications were authorized by the committee to proceed to the next level of review. 

The county has the right to impose conditions and has asked the applicants to detail how existing civic functions, 4-H programs and the county fair can be incorporated into the proposals.

More: Here 50 years? You can become a Lee County Pioneer

Members of the public told the committee about their fears of what would happen to their lifestyle and the rural character of the eastern part of the county if the county fair association is denied another renewal and a hotel rises where proud children once demonstrated their newly won skills at raising crops from seed and animals from birth.

Others also argued on behalf of 4-H club members, detailing how their children learned to work with others, began close friendships and developed their sense of responsibility during their time spent in club activities. 

The message residents sent was clear: Changing the county fairgrounds into a modern development is a change they are not ready to see in their rural community.

History of the Lee Civic Center

A 20-year lease between the county and the Southwest Florida and Lee County Fair Association expired last year and was renewed through October to provide time to evaluate the future of the 96-acre site. 

The civic center and fair property mean more for the people of East Lee than a place for candied apples, midway rides, animal husbandry and ribbon-winning snap beans.

Fair association President Mike Peak spoke of the impact the civic center and the country fair have in rural Lee County and noted that revenues from the 2021 fair that ends Sunday are up substantially this year.

The civic center property is home to events throughout the year, including the annual visit of the Shriner Circus, and local events, including weddings, quinceañeras, 4-H exhibits, and trade shows. 

Its past includes use as a concert venue. It opened in 1978 and immediately hosted acts  — Lawrence Welk, the Royal Canadians, Minnie Pearl and Kitty Wells — aimed at an older audience.

After a few years the switch began to Chicago, Kiss, Aerosmith, and other rock shows.  But the fair association’s Peak explained after the meeting that the venue became too small to draw big-name acts. 

Concerts moved elsewhere, some to the Hertz Arena and Suncoast Arena, leaving only smaller scale shows to put people in the seats.

Soon the seats no longer mattered.

Bleachers were condemned as unsafe in 2015. With no seats, it meant no income from high school graduations and smaller acts.

After Hurricane Irma hit four years ago, the civic center grounds were used as a post-hurricane shelter by military personnel and utility workers, and the fair association points to its place in emergency staging after a hurricane as something the county needs in North Fort Myers.

The ability to use the fairgrounds for shelter may not be as strong a selling point now as it was before the new North Fort Myers library.

When the county built the library a couple of years ago, it was constructed to be used as a temporary shelter for the types of personnel who used the civic center grounds.

Both County Manger Roger Desjarlais and Peak agreed the fair association does not have the financing to improve the facilities. The county fixed a failing air conditioning system several years ago and made an earlier loan to the association. 

Desjarlais was the first to speak at the meeting, his mission appearing to be trying to address the anxiety of the two dozen or so people who took a Friday afternoon to defend the culture of their neighborhood. 

“Some people may have told you that decisions are probably coming here,” the county manager said. “That is not true.”

The five-member panel advanced both applications, finding some issues with each. However assistant county managers Marc Mora and Glen Salyer found the Kitson plan lacking in detail.

“I need them to walk us through in more depth,” Salyer said. 

Mora said there are missing pieces in the Kitson proposal, especially its failure to include details on how a civic element to the new development would be implemented.

The county has owned most of the civic center site for 46 years.


It bought the main parcel, which includes the civic center, various outbuildings and the parking lot for $245,000 in 1975. The civic center was opened, as Kickapoo Ranch Arena, in December 1978 and changed its name to Lee Civic Center in 1981. 

An 11-acre site adjacent to the main fair property was part of a larger parcel that the fair association bought for $280,000 in 2014. Five acres from that parcel were sold to another party in 2016.

The proposed uses of the site will now go through more intensive scrutiny before any recommendation could be made to the Board of County Commissioners, which has the final say on the future of the site. 

East Lee residents plead to save fairgrounds, civic center, rural life 3

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