Hockey and sunshine may be next tourist lure for Southwest Florida

Freezing northerners may get the best of both of their worlds, hockey and…

Hockey and sunshine may be next tourist lure for Southwest Florida
Hockey and sunshine may be next tourist lure for Southwest Florida 1

Bill Smith
 
| Fort Myers News-Press

A lifelong Fort Myers resident and a well-known local hockey coach want to put ice hockey on the fast track to be among the sports luring families to visit Lee County while sons or daughters participate in athletic contests.

They have their eye on turning the Skatium in Fort Myers, a city-owned building in the Midtown region, into a sports tourism destination, drawing families from the cold up North and from the warm climate of the South to youth hockey tournaments.

Big plans for the Skatium

A proposal was developed by a team that includes local resident Bill Weaver and Bryan Myers, a well-known hockey coach in the region who already runs hockey programs at the Skatium.

Now they want to take over the facility, double the ice capacity and lure teams, and with them players and players’ families, to Fort Myers for youth tournaments.

More: Gary Ewen has hung it up but his work shaped Lee County’s revving sports tourism industry

The goal is to upgrade the Skatium so families inclined to travel for a child’s athletic pursuits might be attracted to Fort Myers, which also offers  warm weather and beaches nearby.

Sports tourism is a revenue generator for local business because young players often attend such tournaments with family, and Southwest Florida offers a family vacation that provides activities for family members not thrilled about hanging around at hockey rinks. 

“Our plan is to make this a nice building for the city  and for us to make it something that we can be proud of,” Weaver told Fort Myers City Council members at its most recent meeting. “We bring people in for tournaments, tournaments, tournaments, fill up the hotels, fill up the restaurants.”

Hockey tournaments already draw youth sports teams to Southwest Florida.

Hertz Arena in Estero, has two ice rinks in addition to the main rink used by the Florida Everblades minor league hockey club. 

Craig Brush, chief executive and general manager of Hertz Arena, says some tournaments have found the facility, making it a popular venue for in-state youth hockey programs.

The new effort would reach beyond Florida.

“Typically we’ll have a big tournament at Christmastime, and we have other tournaments over the years,” Brush said in an interview with The News-Press. “There is a lot of hockey being played in Florida now in most of the major cities.”

More: Fort Myers will study whether City of Palms Park could be turned into an amateur sports complex

Hertz has a busy schedule of other events, but rinks outside of the main arena building increase the capacity available for larger-scale tournaments. 

“Coming from up North, they want a nice hotel to go to, and they want to be able to use the beaches,” Brush said. “There’s certainly enough room for another source of tournaments. Here we are somewhat limited in what we can have because of the other programs that we have here.”

The region already has an ambitious sports tourism program. Luring a family means multiple hotel rooms, more seats filled in restaurants and increased collections from the 5% tourism development tax assessed on hotel rooms. 

Fort Myers City Council members are aiming to take another look at the plan in late February. A formal request for proposals to operate the Skatium, essentially a bidding process, will be needed for the lease plan to move forward. 

When the Skatium was opened in 1998, a group promised to staff and supervise the facility. That lasted about three years, Weaver said. A parents group took over, but volunteers fell off. 

User fees contribute, but a lot of the current expense is on the city’s dime. 

The 22-year-old Skatium needs work. City officials say it is intended as an amenity and runs an annual deficit of $200,000 to $250,000. In the past year, the deficit swelled to $700,000 when contact sports such as hockey were not played due to the coronavirus crisis.

More: Tourist tax collections plummet in Southwest Florida amid coronavirus pandemic

The facility has two rinks, but only one currently has refrigeration equipment needed to create a rink-sized ice sheet. The other is used for roller hockey, basketball and other sports. The promoters would install refrigeration equipment to create a second ice rink, and provide a floor that can be dropped on top of the ice to use it for other sports, as do arenas with pro teams.

Zambonis needed

They also say the facility needs two Zamboni machines, which scrape ice shavings off the rink and lay a coating of water that freezes into a new surface. Left with only one of the machines, which look like a street sweeper, a breakdown with no backup means the ice surface could be unsafe for hockey.

“The improvements that we are planning on making, those are in a five-year plan,” Weaver said. “The other thing you want is just catching up with the maintenance that has been neglected over the years; the building is getting older, but we would like to have things done so we could start with a new slate.”

Weaver made his initial presentation to the Fort Myer City Council this week, an optimistic look that concentrated on the Skatium’s unrealized potential as a facility that can be a lure for visitors. 

Born in Fort Myers and with a 27-year career with Bill Smith Inc., one of the region’s oldest employers, behind him, Weaver and hockey are a somewhat unexpected alliance.

“I was born and raised here. I was never even on ice skates until my 20s,” Weaver said.  

He was accompanied at the council by Bryan Myers, known to local hockey enthusiasts as Coach Bunky. Myers has worked for companies in the real estate business for several years. 

Called by Weaver “one of the most respected hockey coaches and players” in the region, Myers helped put together the package of changes that would be made to the the Skatium. 

Essential to the youth hockey program

He has also steered the growth of the youth hockey program at the Skatium from three to seven local teams, including what Weaver said is the only all-girls travel team in Florida.

City Council members have some questions about the plan. Liston Bissette said the age of the facility could mean the roof needs work. He also said the council last month agreed to hire the international planning concern HOK Group Inc., which has an office in Tampa, to conduct a study that will touch on local sports tourism and the Midtown initiatives.

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