The Southwest Florida and Lee County Fair returns for its 43rd consecutive year at the Lee Civic Center beginning Thursday, February 24.
And while it’s likely there will be many more fairs at the same location near Bayshore Road in North Fort Myers, it’s not exactly a slam dunk, and if so, it’s possible that be run by a completely different group of people.
Last year, the Lee County Board of Commissioners extended the contract between the county and the Southwest Florida & Lee County Fair Association for one year. The contract has been in effect since 2000.
But once the contract extension expires in October, then what? Does the county enter into another agreement with the association? And if so, how long? Is he looking for fresh eyes and looking for someone else to run the fair and the grounds?
Is the county looking to head in a completely different direction, like the one envisioned last year when a large-scale development proposal was put on the table as an alternative use for the 110-acre county-owned site near some R. 31, aka Babcock Ranch Road?
The latter possibility seems highly unlikely, but the first two are definitely on the table, according to the two county commissioners who represent North Fort Myers.
Lee County Commissioner Brian Hamman said the Civic Center campus is a very important place for the county because it is located at the corner of two major roads and just a few miles from I-75.
“It’s an important facility for us and it’s something we want to take our time and figure out what’s the right way to go,” Hamman said. “We’re going back to the drawing board and maybe asking the question better this time. I think we asked the wrong question last time.
Last time, the county asked for proposals for “best and highest use” of land, hence the submission of a construction plan for a huge commercial development. Hamman said they should have researched the best use in the context of the community surrounding the site, which is in an area that includes many of Lee County’s remaining rural neighborhoods.
The Fair Association has operated the Civic Center and Fair since 1996. In 2000, the BOCC entered into a 20-year agreement allowing the Fair Association to begin long-term plans for continued improvements.
The contract was amended three times. The first was in 2007, which required the Fair Association to deposit one-third of parking proceeds into an interest-bearing savings account with the principle and interest to be used for future major improvement projects at the civic center.
A second amendment was added in 2011 to make it easier to sell, serve, and drink alcoholic beverages, and in 2020 the board approved the third amendment to extend the term of the agreement by one year.
Last year, when the Fair Trade Association contract expired, the county authorized an Invitation to Negotiate that was announced for the solicitation of proposals to develop and/or operate the Lee Civic Center.
The county only received two proposals, from the Fair Association and Kitson & Partners.
Kitson & Partners, which is developing Babcock Ranch on the Charlotte side of the Charlotte-Lee County line, has offered to buy the 110 acres on which the nearly 50,000-foot aging civic center stands. With 62 acres it owns next to the site, Kitson & Partners would then build a large-scale development off Bayshore Road where it ends at SR 31.
After hearing the residents’ outcry, the county decided to rescind the invitation to negotiate and extend the fair contract.
Fran Crone, who runs the fair for the Southwest Florida & Lee County Fair Association, declined to comment because there was no update on the status of the sale and development of the property.
In addressing the association’s role, Crone said there are grants available so they can build educational facilities to help with the fair and that the association has made improvements to the property.
“We will continue to be good partners with the county. And hopefully we end up with another long-term deal,” Crone said.
Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann said the county is crippled by the lack of proposals. Worse, they began looking for proposals when the county was in the first throes of the pandemic.
But the cogs will soon start again on the civic center plans.
Mann said the county would be coming back soon for proposals because the fair association has been running for the fair for so long, but added that Kitson’s proposal is not currently on the table.
“We’ve had the Fair Association in partnership with us for 22 years, and that’s a long time to have a contract with anyone. The staff suggested that we go to the street and look for proposals”, Mann said. “We need to figure out what to do to take advantage of this huge facility more effectively.”
The Southwest Florida & Lee County Fair Association made some changes to this year’s fair, adding a horse arena and using new areas on the grounds to organize attractions more efficiently.
However, there are things that need to be done there that the Fair Association may not be able to do alone, such as figuring out what to do with the aging civic center building.
The building, which once hosted rock concerts and high school graduations, hasn’t aged gracefully despite its proximity to major highways.
Its bleachers were boarded up several years ago, and while it still holds popular events such as home shows and gun shows and the grounds are booked almost every weekend with something (there was a cheerleading competition there recently), its use has been limited.
“This building has been around for a long time and people have fond memories of it. People would be open to having the building repaired or replaced as long as the theme remains compatible with the community,” Hamman said.
Mann said he didn’t know when they would be looking for proposals, but said no decision would be made until the county had a better response to its request for proposals. However, this could include a bleak future for the old building.
“We would like to be able to increase usage, and we hope that one of the proposals would indicate that we would be happy to do so, if you fix the supports”, Mann said. “It will cost at least $1 million to replace the bleachers. We need to know what these proposals will entail in expenditure. And one of them might have us bulldoze the facility.
Hamman said they would hire an engineering company to look at the installation and get an idea of what repairs need to be done.
“Once we have an inventory of how everything is, then we can make decisions for the future,” Hamman said. “The council said everything we do matches the rural character of the area.”
As for Kitson & Associates, company spokeswoman Lisa Hall said as far as she was concerned, she was out of the running.
” There is nothing to say. Nothing happened. We have no role in that.” said Hall. “There has been no activity since they decided not to accept our proposal.”