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After a year-long process, questions about the future of the Fort Myers Yacht Basin were answered in late February when Fort Myers City Council approved its ground-lease agreement with Dallas-based Suntex Marinas in a 5-2 vote. But the decision leaves some residents uncertain about their future.

Suntex is an owning, managing and investing company with an extensive network of saltwater and freshwater marinas in the United States.

“We are proud to be in Fort Myers and look forward to getting to work to bring the city the world-class marina it deserves,” says David Filler, principal of Suntex. “Working with city leadership to get here was a pleasure, and we look forward to building on that relationship and creating many more within the community.”

The agreement came in response to a Request for Proposal issued by the city Jan. 3 for redevelopment and management of the yacht basin property and its associated land parcels.

The 30-year initial lease term has two optional renewals for 25 years each. The investment in infrastructure and improvements will be as much as $45 million, subject to the addition of demised premises, but no less than $30 million.

Within six years, Suntex must spend at least $17.5 million on docks, wet slips, seawalls and related infrastructure.

The minimum annual base rent is $400,000 for the first five years, and then an additional $100,000 for the next two five-year periods. After that, every five years the base rent amount will increase by 10%.

With the yacht basin now in new hands, proposed changes include 350 to 382 slips with floating docks and approximately 2,600 linear feet of new seawall, hospitality, retail and restaurant uses. Amenities include a boat club, day boat and watersport rentals, captain’s lounge, marine store, an in-slip pump-out service, fuel facilities, 24-hour security and approximately 40,000 square feet of upland buildings.

While many residents anticipate a world-class marina downtown, it seems to be the end of a long fight for yacht basin residents.

From red signs and shirts that read “STOP SUNTEX” to waiting hours to speak by the dozens at multiple city council meetings, residents nearly exhausted every form of protest against the company.

“My biggest fear is having nowhere to go,” resident Ashley Harris said at one of those meetings. “Having a place to dock, electric and water; we still need those things in order to survive. I just feel like I’m going to come home from work one day and have nothing.”

Harris is a mother of three and has lived at the yacht basin for about four years. She said the best-case scenario would be for the city to retain ownership, fix up the existing marina and raise the rates to be more compatible with the market rate. “We’re a community,” she says. “We came together and said, ‘The more we push it, the more we show up, maybe it’ll make a difference.’”

Even after their homes felt Hurricane Ian’s fury as it moved through the river district in downtown Fort Myers, residents remained united in their message.

About two weeks after the storm, the yacht basin was deemed unsafe and uninhabitable by Fort Myers building officials, and was closed due to storm damage until safe conditions returned to the facility.

Shortly after, council member Liston Bochette brought the cancellation of the yacht basin RFP forward as an item for consideration given the damages, but the motion failed due to lack of a second.

Residents said they felt left out of the solicitation process since its inception, at one point prompting a public forum in August hosted by Wilbur Smith Law Firm, representatives of Suntex throughout negotiations with the city.

The issue of where live-aboards would go during and after construction was a looming question residents had. 

“Many of the concerned citizens here are concerned mostly because of where they’re going to be if construction starts, what’s going to happen and how much rates are going to go up,” said Ruth Diaz, a six-year resident at the yacht basin and four-year employee at the marina, at a council meeting. “Are you guys going to work with all of us to try to make this work?”

Six months later, after the agreement was approved, residents had their answer.

All existing slip licenses were terminated or will be terminated by the city within 30 days after the effective day of the agreement. However, the time frame has flexibility, City Manager Marty Lawing said. He added the city would develop a plan to notify the current boat owners regarding vacation of their boats from the facility.Rendering of Fort Myers Yacht Basin

Long-term leases for marinas by municipalities is a common practice with numerous examples in the state of Florida, Lawing said. As part of the city’s due diligence during negotiations, Council visited Sarasota, which has a contract with Suntex to operate the Marina Jack facility there.

Sarasota’s city manager and attorney reported a positive working relationship with Suntex, Lawing said. City officials also spoke with Fort Lauderdale’s city manager and a city commissioner, who also reported positive relations with Suntex for the development of Las Olas Marina.

“Suntex has proven throughout the state of Florida that it has the ability to deliver something we have needed for a long time,” says attorney Sawyer Smith. “An active, vibrant waterfront open to all of us who call Fort Myers home.”

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