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As destruction of the Sanibel Outlets shopping center continues, details emerged of the 22.6-acre site’s potential to be redeveloped as a 498-unit apartment complex that includes 200 affordable units. 

Calusa Grande, as the proposed development is tentatively called, at 20350 Summerlin Road, also has plans for 72,025 square feet of office space and 52,418 square feet of retail, including 21,209 square feet of restaurant space, according to a development order filed with Lee County. 

A performing arts center could be a part of the project, as well, said Edgar Wilson II, one of the project’s investors. He envisioned an arts complex of 16,000to 20,000 square feet for a live-work-play community. 

“We started this as a result of Hurricane Ian,” said Wilson, son of the late Edgar Wilson, an architect who designed many buildings across the region. “My family has been here forever. My family has been here since the 1870s. I left the development business and went into health care. But after Hurricane Ian, I felt like I needed to do something. So, I talked to Mr. (Dennis) Dahlmann, and we created a project that we submitted for a development order.” 

The property, purchased for $26 million in January 2016 by Bell Tower Campus Inn Limited, an offshoot of Dahlmann Properties, had since the mid-1990s been an outlet mall, first known as Tanger Outlets and, more recently, Sanibel Outlets. About 40 retail shops with brands including Nike, Famous Footwear and Brooks Brothers Factory Storewere there. 

Hurricane Ian damaged the mall in September 2022. Changing retail trends likely ended any serious efforts to reconstruct and reopen the mall. Dahlmann Properties declined to comment. 

John Lai, president of the Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce, wrote a letter on behalf of the chamber in favor of this project. 

“This project … is not only a beacon of recovery but a crucial investment in the future sustainability of our community and economy,” Lai wrote. “Tourism is the lifeblood of our islands, and its success hinges on a dependable and stable labor force. These attainable housing units proposed in this project will provide essential accommodation options for workers who are integral to maintaining the high standards of service and hospitality that our visitors have come to expect. In turn, this will help ensure that the local businesses will continue to thrive.” 

Wilson and fellow investor Jim Eaton enlisted Wendover Housing Partners to develop the 200 affordable units. The other units would be market rate and built by another developer. 

“Yes, they work for Universal Studios,” Wilson said of Wendover, which is developing 1,000 affordable units in Orlando. “Yes, they have a huge operation. We’re glad that they’re doing the workforce housing of our mixed-use project for this plan of the future.” 

The affordable units would be built on 4.5 acres on the northeast portion of the site, said Ryan Von Weller, chief operating officer of Wendover Housing Partners. 

Wendover applied to receive federal funding from a portion of the $1.1 billion in hurricane relief heading to Lee County, Von Weller said. He’s also applied to build under the Live Local Act, a state law passed to encourage developers in building more affordable housing units. 

“We applied for the hurricane grant money that was due to the county two weeks ago, specifically for our portion of it,” Von Weller said. “That money cannot be used for anything but affordable housing. So, we’re waiting to hear back on that. 

“There are a lot of hourly employees who work in tourism on Sanibel, Captiva and Fort Myers Beach. All of those job positions lend themselves to residents in workforce housing. We have 200 units planned. We’re anticipating pretty high demand.” 

Going through the Live Local Act means the land may not have to go through the rezoning process, Von Weller said. 

The affordable units would be in a four-story structure built 15 feet above the ground and would be about 75 feet tall, he said. 

“We’re going to work as fast as we can to get this thing going,” said Von Weller, who hopes to get the grant money approved by the end of this summer and break ground about a year from now. “It doesn’t help to just have it sit there. We’re going to go full speed ahead.” 

Wilson said he and his team of investors are thrilled with the opportunity to make an impact on the region’s future near the base of the Sanibel Causeway. 

“What we’re doing is extremely important for the area,” Wilson said. “And this project showcases how we’re going to create a mixed-use housing and market-rate housing and live-work-play environment.” 

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