It’s hard not to be charmed by the Fort Myers River District.
In the span of an hour or two, you can pick up an almond coconut bath bomb and grab a slice of coal-fired pizza and a fresh-pressed juice before meandering to a high-end barber or salon for a trim. Brick streets, historic buildings, restaurants, bars, music and art walks draw happy crowds, a testament to the decades of redevelopment work poured into what was a “desolate urban wasteland” in the ‘70s and ‘80s. That’s a direct quote from the city’s redevelopment agency.
But what happens once you cross over Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard from the River District? Gone is the character. What you’ll find is a hodgepodge of small businesses, a bus terminal, police and fire stations and older homes and apartments. But there are big dreams for the neighborhood. The area has been dubbed Midtown but there's not much of a town or a sense of anything there yet.
Fort Myers leaders envision it as a mixed-use area where residents could live, work and play. They hope to lure millennial-friendly tech companies, among others, to the area. CPR Tools, a data recovery and data security company, is a Midtown pioneer. It relocated there last year and its leaders are eager for change. "Our visitors, they stay at the Indigo Room," says John Benkert, CEO of CPR Tools. "They spend the evening eating and having a good time and then the next morning, they walk over to us and they're like 'Whoa, what happened?'"
The area has been in need of more bold investments. Midtown, as it's imagined, moved closer to reality in January when the Southwest Florida Community Foundation announced plans to build a tech hub and headquarters in the historic Atlantic Coast Line railway station south of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on Jackson Street. Midtown covers the blocks south of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, north of Edison Avenue, east of U.S. 41 and west of Fowler Street or Evans Avenue. The depot had housed the Southwest Florida Museum of History, which merged with the Imaginarium Science Center in 2015.
"We hope the space becomes an incubator for what should happen there," says Sarah Owen, CEO of the philanthropic Southwest Florida Community Foundation. "It's a physical space but it's also a living, breathing hub that will continue to evolve."
The foundation signed a long-term lease with the city for the station it plans to renovate. The project will include the sustainable construction of a 10,000-square-foot addition, doubling the space. It should be complete by May 2018. Foundation leaders hope the three-acre campus will be a catalyst for Midtown. The depot's historic purpose of connecting the region by rails became a fitting metaphor for the project.
"It's old historic rail meeting new innovative rail," Owen says. "We've got to create a new rail of technology, where people can be connected seamlessly."
So what does that look like?
In the proposed space, nonprofit groups, businesses and individuals could access state-of-the-art technology and equipment in shared spaces. Owen calls the hub a "collaboration accelerator." The plan is to offer space on a sliding scale from a daily to permanent basis at prices below market value. The community foundation is in talks with Florida LambdaRail, an ultra-high speed computer network that connects the state's higher education institutions and partners. The 1,540-mile dark fiber network delivers data at a speed of 100 Gigabits-per-second, facilitating the quick sharing of data-intensive information. A goal of LambdaRail is to foster innovation and collaboration across distances.
Owen hopes the hub's funding through the New Markets Tax Credit program will be a model for potential investors in the neighborhood. The $10 million New Markets Tax Credit deal includes $2.5 million for streetscaping (i.e. trees, sidewalks, lighting, benches) around the project. The New Markets Tax Credit program encourages economic development in distressed neighborhoods as identified by 2010 Census data. The median income in the Fort Myers metropolitan area was $58,950 compared with $31,161 in the Midtown location, according to the Florida Community Loan Fund.
There are signs the project is having the intended effect. "I've heard people were sitting on the sidelines, waiting to see the community foundation project come to fruition," says Leigh Scrabis, executive director of the city's redevelopment agency. An out-of-state developer recently scoped out the Midtown area.
Developers showing interest are looking at more complex financing structures to build rather than seeking financial incentives from the city, she said.
But developers would need to do something "sooner rather than later," she notes, to take advantage of programs like New Market Tax Credits. The neighborhood's "distressed" status could change with the 2020 Census.
Fort Myers is working to prime Midtown for investment with plans to increase the density, improve water and sewer lines, and sketch out a streetscape. "At this point, it's anybody guess what it looks like," Scrabis says.
Midtown could meet pent-up demand created by a thriving downtown: larger professional office spaces and housing for people who work in the River District.
The community redevelopment agency often fields inquiries for professional downtown office spaces ranging from about 20,000 to 40,000 square feet, says Scrabis. "That's just something that's not available." Benkert has talked with tech companies that would like to relocate near CPR Tools, but there is not space. A cluster of tech companies could help attract young professionals who like to hop to other companies within their field, he says. Housing is a huge issue for his employees, who would like to live downtown but don't want to drain their entire paycheck on rent.
There's a sprawling price gap in downtown housing prices. Luxury two-bedroom rentals on the Caloosahatchee River run up to $3,000 a month, according to Zillow, but heading south toward the City of Palms Park, which falls in the Midtown boundaries, two-bedroom apartments go for about $650 to $850 a month.
"I don't know how to quantify the need but I know that we need to do more about providing workforce and affordable housing in Southwest Florida," says Marcus Goodson, the Fort Myers housing authority's executive director. "This region is becoming more affluent and leaving the less affluent behind in many ways and housing is just one." The Fort Myers housing authority does not own property in Midtown and doesn't plan to develop public housing there.
"The conversation has been heavy around the idea of housing for millennials and young families," says Jonathan Romine, owner of EnSite, a Fort Myers design firm that has been involved in the foundation's plans and the city plans for Midtown.
The capacity is there. There are an estimated 910 residents in Midtown, but the neighborhood could house around 20,000 people if the city makes needed upgrades to infrastructure. Midtown could also include amenities like a movie theater, parks and retail chains, Romine says. Other improvements, like lighting and bike lanes, could increase safety. (A CPR Tools employee stopped biking from the company to his home at night because people threw things at him, Benkert says.)
Many of the homes and apartment buildings in Midtown are older. Some are run- down and border on unsafe. "There needs to be new product," says Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson. "The thing that Midtown offers is location, location, location. What it's lacking is curb appeal and modernization."
But would improvements squeeze out the lower-income people who live there now? Maybe, but that's certainly not the goal. Henderson is hopeful developers will create appealing housing that existing residents could afford. "Gentrification and moving people away is a risk and we need to be sensitive to that," the mayor says. "But to sit back and do nothing just because you're worried about that doesn't inspire a great city."
He's also holding out hope that City of Palms Park, the former spring training home of the Red Sox, will once again host a professional team and inject life into Midtown. Florida SouthWestern State College now uses the park.
Within a decade, Henderson expects to see the kind of massive revitalization that transformed the River District. "You're going to see tangible activity this year and within a decade you're going to see a garden."
There's a smattering of businesses in Midtown, from a used car lot to law offices to antique stores. Melody Celec's A Way Out Bail Bonds sits across from the depot, where work on the foundation's project is set to begin in April. "My business could fit in with anybody," she says. "I've done work from attorneys to millionaires." She welcomes the step toward a more economically robust neighborhood. Improvements seemed to have stalled after the Red Sox moved out, she says. "We're finally starting to build up and get with the program."