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County departments pivot to host expo

By MEGHAN BRADBURY - | Feb 21, 2024

Lee County Civic Center grounds off Bayshore Road. PROVIDED

The Lee County Parks & Recreation Department has assumed operations of the Lee County Civic Center and is organizing the Southwest Florida Ag Expo

“They tasked us to pick up the operation and run with it,” said Lee County Parks & Recreation Operations Manager Lisa Weaver. “October of this past year was when the department assumed operation of the Lee Civic Center complex. We were directed to pick up the Ag Expo.”

The effort to rebrand the Southwest Florida & Lee County Fair into a “youth showcase” quickly became an all-hands-on deck county effort.

In addition to the Lee County Parks & Recreation Department, Procurement Management, Risk Management, County Attorney’s Office, Sports Development, Human Resources, Facilities Construction Management, Information Technology, Communications & Community Engagement, Visitor & Convention Bureau, Public Safety, Animal Services and LeeTran are working together to put on the event, now officially called the Southwest Florida Ag Expo.

Weaver said it was recognized by all levels of the organization, that the Lee Civic Center facility and site off Bayshore Road in North Fort Myers is one that the community loves.

“It’s an event that has nostalgia and brings the community together. It’s a fun project to get involved with,” she said.

When the county assumed operation of the site on Oct. 1 the work began from replacing animal pens to running fiber cables to use WiFi and conduct business.

In addition to rerunning the cables, the parking lot resurfacing was just approved to provide safer day-to-day operation.

“Every day we are doing more on this property. The majority is completed or is in completion,” she said. “Step one was what do we need to put back into the site to operate every single weekend to big events.”

The primary focus became the livestock component, as the 4H kids to take part in the Ag Expo have been working on their projects since last year.

“The goal was to provide as little of an interruption and make it a seamless transition,” Weaver said. “Once that kind of got set up and handled we moved into a larger event.”

She said they purchased 160 swine and goat pens, which are utilized year-round. Cages for poultry and rabbits had to be purchased as well.

“We had 319 birds,” Weaver said.

Bleachers, tables and chairs were also purchased for the grounds — something else that will be used year-round.

“Every weekend, but maybe Christmas weekend, since Oct. 1, there has been an event on the property,” Weaver said. “From an entire county perspective — administration to commissioners — it is such an asset to the community. It was very important to assume operations and keep it here for the community long-term.”

The next component was to figure out the rides and the concessionaires that have been there for years as part of the Southwest Florida & Lee County Fair as well as the Creative Living component. From there, the county moved into the event layout and marketing.

“We are really proud of it and excited,” Weaver said. “It was a big undertaking of all the departments.” 

One of the most eye-opening things over the last full year was the amount of community engagement the county received for the Lee Civic Center property.

Weaver said the property is not just isolated to one area, but is of interest to residents from around Lee County.

The property provides an opportunity for the agricultural side to learn how the industry works.

“It’s such neat property that is very unique in the area,” Weaver said. “Proud to have it and provide it back to the community.”

Weaver said there are 236 full-time employees and more than 100 part-time employees who make up the county’s Park & Recreation Department. There are more than 150 locations countywide.

In the wake of Ian

The department continues to be in hurricane recovery mode, as there was $26 million in damage caused by Hurricane Ian.

“During and following the storm, both parks and staff went into an emergency management roll,” she said, as areas became base camps for emergency service workers, shelters, and staff worked in roles of distribution, staging, and recovering. “It became our recovery for our department that we currently are still in.”

Hurricane Ian wreaked havoc on all the county’s locations with some still needing assistance, such as Matlacha, Fort Myers Beach, Bonita Beach and Pine Island.

Among the work still to be done is the Fort Myers Beach pier, Crescent Beach and the rebuilding of Matanzas Pass Preserve. Weaver said the beach areas, whether it is vegetation, infrastructure, restrooms, boardwalks and walkways taken out, are now all shoreline creating a harder process to go through and rebuild.

The Matlacha Community Center remains closed.

Weaver said they are looking at late summer to start construction on the interior for both the Matlacha Community Center and art building. The pier will hopefully be done in April of this year and the playground should reopen in February. The boat ramp, she said, is currently operating.

The Wakehatchee Recreational Center, which experienced extensive damage, is looking to reopen in time for summer camps.

The athletic field lighting at Lee County Parks & Recreation sites also experienced damage with the majority of the sites up and running as of December. The facilities were closed use at nighttime since the hurricane until November.

Another major project are the splash pads at Lakes Park. The pads were completely flooded, which included salt water under the pads damaging all the components and piping – leaving behind $2 million in damages.

“The two splash pads are complete rebuilds. We are hoping to go out to bid for repairs here in the next couple of months,” Weaver said. “When it’s not working it impacts people. It is something we take seriously. It provides that little bit of relief on the weekends.”

The silver lining – parks and recreation continued to be a vital part of the community and an integral part of everyday life. Weaver said the parks provided some kind of normalcy after the hurricane – a place to go and play.