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Lee County Civic Center at a crossroads

Councty Commission to discuss options Tuesday

By CHUCK BALLARO - | Apr 3, 2023

Lee County Civic Center FILE

For Bobbi Harrison, a fifth-generation Floridian who’s lived in North Fort Myers since 1968, there are a lot of great memories associated with the Lee Civic Center, from concerts to high school graduations and, of course, the Lee County Fair.

What the future holds for the next generations, though, is as yet undetermined as the Lee Board of County Commissioners last week voted to take over the facility, citing concerns over the safety of the buildings.

The county has closed all the buildings at the more than 100-acre Bayshore Road facility. It will be surveyed for future discussion.

“I don’t want to see it go. It’s been a staple here, and next year is the 100th fair and that kind of blows everything out of the water,” Harrison said. “Are we having a fair and where is it going to be.”

But permanent closure, at least in its current configuration, could be a possibility.

Last weekend’s Florida Gun Show will be the last event at the big old building, at least for a while and perhaps ever as the county, which owns the building, decides what to do next with the aging facility.

The Southwest Florida and Lee County Fair Association has run the property over the past 25 years, pouring millions of dollars into its upkeep. But it’s been running the grounds on a year-by-year basis the past couple years and its latest deal expires in September.

Mike Peak, president of the fair board, said they support anything the county will do to improve the facility.

“We knew this was coming a year ago when they voted to fund the studies of the buildings that they would be making decisions,” Peak said. “I applaud them, whatever they want to do. That’s great for the community and the board feels that way.”

The Lee Civic Center opened in 1979 and hosted a myriad of events from rock concerts to pro wrestling to the circus.

However, when the stands were condemned nearly a decade ago, it severely limited what the big building can do. It could only do floor shows like the gun show, home shows and events during the fair.

Meanwhile, the rest of the grounds are aging as well, with Whaley Hall being severely damaged by Hurricane Ian last year. The county must now decide what to do next, either renovate or replace. It is expected to cost around $15.5 million to renovate the civic center building and $42.2 million to rebuild it. The renovation of the entire complex will be around $22 million, with replacement being more than $53 million.

This is not the first time the civic center’s future has been explored. In 2021, when the fair association was up for another contract, it got competition from Kitson & Partners, which has been developing Babcock Ranch on the Charlotte side of the Charlotte-Lee County line.

Kitson & Partners proposed buying the civic center property, pairing it with the 62 acres it owns adjacent to the site, and building a large-scale development off Bayshore Road where it ends at SR 31.

After hearing the outcry from residents, the county cancelled the Invitation to Negotiate and extended the fair contract by another year.

Last year, the BOCC approved an architectural and structural assessment of the buildings, which has led to this moment.

Peak said they don’t need the civic center to hold the fair, whether that means at the current location or somewhere else.

“It’s nice to have it, but we don’t need it to do the fair or a reduction in the things we do,” Peak said. “We can bring in a portable for the fair office during the fair. The main thing would be the bathrooms, which I think are usable.”

The BOCC will discuss options during its next meeting on April 4 at 9:30 a.m. at the Old Lee County Courthouse, 2120 Monroe St.,Fort Myers.

The county meanwhile, is also accepting public input. Lee County residents are invited to participate in a survey to share ideas about the features and amenities important to a reimagined Lee Civic Center. Go to www.leegov.com/CivicCenter for the survey and related information.