At a workshop presented to the City of Fort Myers City Council on Nov. 10 at City Hall, Sarah Owen, executive director of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, presented a proposal for a long-term lease that would restore the historic train depot to its former glory, curate the region’s rich history, and provide an infrastructure for a state-of-the-art technologyhub. The goal will be to preserve history, provide a pathway to the future, and serve as a resource to the entire community.
The proposal includes renovating the building that was once the home of the Southwest Florida Museum of History, as well as constructing a 10,000 square-foot, two-story building next door and creating a beautiful surrounding streetscape. The project represents a collaboration between the City of Fort Myers, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, Parker Mudgett Smith Architects, and a host of other community organizations.
Overall, the intent is to create a Southwest Florida regional technology center that will also bring together the region's nonprofit organizations, Mayor Randy Henderson said. Mayor Henderson added that the Community Foundation could help improve the lives of those struggling in Dunbar, as well as become a resource down the road to help bring a university campus to downtown Fort Myers. It could offer training opportunities for potential college students and technology firms looking to relocate downtown, City Manager Saeed Kazemi said, adding this could foster growth of the high-tech industry in Fort Myers.
Technology plans include high speed fiber access provided by Florida Lambda Rail, an Internet highway available only to nonprofits. “Without complete cooperation from City staff, and the Southwest Florida Community Foundation’s board and staff, we would not be at this point right now,” said Ms. Owen. “We are excited about the steps ahead, and we cannot express enough our appreciation to the City.”
According to architect Jeff Mudgett, the new energy-efficient building is planned to be LEED Gold certified, and designed to accommodate a technology-oriented environment that will bring together the region’s nonprofit organizations. The center will be open as a resource for people to use, including students from nearby Dunbar High School which focuses on technology programs. An event space will allow for up to 180 people to host educational meetings and special events for the community.
Although the City Council will not vote on ratifying the lease until Dec. 12, there was positive response to the presentation. “We have a great community project here,” said Councilman Flanders. “It’s going to be fantastic. The concept respects the old while at the same time being bold and beautiful with the new.”
Ms. Owen and Maria Joyner, City of Fort Myers’ director of finance, explained the financing structure of the $10 million project. A New Market Tax Credit Allocation was secured by the Southwest Florida Community Foundation which will allow the project to take shape. After seven years, the City will be responsible for a “not to exceed” amount of $7.3 million, giving the City ample time to reach out to potential technology firms for partnerships and other economic development opportunities.
Ms. Owen presented a timeline which was highlighted by the Dec. 12 City Council ratification, Dec. 29 deadline for the tax credit deal, mid-Feb. 2017 site work start date, and May 2018 anticipated completion date.
Mayor Henderson closed by saying, “This will be a world class oasis within our great City.”