Fort Myers business owners hope downtown trolley will free up parking, attract customers

David Albers/Staff 
 - Portland resident Tony Hynes boards the River District Trolley with his son, 2-year-old Jack Hynes, on Monday, Dec. 3, 2012, in downtown Fort Myers.

Photo by DAVID ALBERS, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo

David Albers/Staff - Portland resident Tony Hynes boards the River District Trolley with his son, 2-year-old Jack Hynes, on Monday, Dec. 3, 2012, in downtown Fort Myers.

Fort Myers trolley routes

Fort Myers trolley routes

It was a slow afternoon for trolley driver Jane Mahan when a couple hopped on mid-Friday with their out-of-town guests.

"Is it a quarter?" a woman asked.

"No, it's free," Mahan said. "Mark that down."

After years of city leaders talking about a downtown trolley system, drivers on two new routes began toting passengers across the Fort Myers River District last week. The trolleys, which are more or less decorative buses, take visitors from as far as Palm Beach Boulevard and Seaboard Street to the corner of McGregor Boulevard and West First Street.

A federal grant, the city's redevelopment agency and condo association fees will keep the trips free for riders.

City officials have high hopes for the system: An overwhelming 86 percent of downtown residents and 68 percent of city employees who were surveyed said they would use a trolley if it were available to them. But it will take until mid-April, when the routes close at the end of season, to see if they will keep their word.

Residents said they'd use the system to more easily access shopping, restaurants and special events, while business owners hoped the trolleys would free up parking for more customers. In the survey, all 13 downtown business owners who were questioned had positive thoughts toward the trolley.

Collectively, the group said customers, particularly senior citizens, complain about a lack of parking that means a long walk from the car to wherever they're going. The business owners said the new transportation system could extend the chance for success on First Street eastward.

Anne Liebermann, treasurer of the Art League of Fort Myers, said it has been hard to attract foot traffic to the league's gallery and gift shop on Monroe Street.

Although the trolley doesn't run down that road, "I think anything they can do to get people downtown is good," she said.

But even Mayor Randy Henderson, who champions the project, questions its impact for downtown businesses.

"I don't know that it was designed to expand the business opportunities," he said. "We're taking care of the residents who step out of a condominium and travel within that 540-acre core. Clearly, taking the pressure out of parking is an objective."

Henderson said the intention of the trolley is first and foremost transportation — not business development or tourism, although those things could also fall into play.

"We've been talking about it for the better part of a decade, and we had to get the table set to do that," he said. "It's now so that people don't have to get in their car to get from point A to point B if they have business downtown."

Friday afternoon on the Blue Line, a 15-minute loop in the shape of a smile with the two front teeth knocked out, none of the six passengers on Mahan's trolley were Fort Myers residents doing their business downtown. But that doesn't mean they weren't enjoying themselves.

"We've seen it in the paper so we decided to come," said Patty Crum of Cape Coral, who with her husband Gary was showing off downtown to their friends from Minnesota. "You can get on and off. It's familiarizing yourself with where you are."

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