Lovesick Fort Myers businesses take a swing at life without Red Sox

City of Palms Park was the spring training home of the Boston Red Sox from 1993-2011.

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City of Palms Park was the spring training home of the Boston Red Sox from 1993-2011.

■ The Lee County Commission and Boston Red Sox have scheduled a grand opening celebration for Saturday, Feb. 25, at 11:30 a.m., when they will open the new spring training complex to the public. The ceremony will be followed by an open house, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., open to all fans and visitors.

■ Sunday, Feb. 19: Pitchers and catchers report.

■ Saturday, Feb. 25: First full squad workout, opening celebration, and free open house.

■ Saturday, March 3: First college exhibition games featuring Northeastern University at 2:35 p.m., followed by Boston College at 7:05 p.m.

■ Sunday, March 4: First official Grapefruit League Game at the new park, 1:35 p.m., Red Sox vs. Minnesota Twins

FORT MYERS _ Like jilted lovers, some owners of shops, bars and hotels in downtown Fort Myers are concerned about what awaits them as their 19-year relationship with the Boston Red Sox ends. And they're worried fans won't be faithful after the breakup while others say they will survive just fine.

The love affair between downtown Fort Myers and the Red Sox is officially over March 3 when the team sets up house in the $77 million JetBlue Park, the "Fenway Park South" mansion Lee County built to woo the team south to Daniels Parkway, and out of the heart of Fort Myers and City of Palms Park.

"There's no way the fans are coming back," said a pessimistic Lynne Routhier, owner of Enjewel, a boutique on First Street. Every spring, Bostonian women used to swarm her one-of-a-kind women's shop while their spouses went to the games six blocks away. Shoppers would shuttle from the City of Palms Park on buses provided by the downtown businesses — a strategy aimed at snagging some of big-spending Red Sox fans.

"The Red Sox fans have money to spend," said Dickson Hunley, owner of City Tavern on Bay Street. "We see a big spike in business when they are in town."

The nearly 100,000 Red Sox-game attendees each drop almost $150 a day on tickets, food, lodging, and other activities, according to a 2009 study commissioned by the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau. Fans spent $12 million alone on food, drink and evening entertainment, the study shows.

Businesses like the Hideaway Sports Bar on Dean Street tripled monthly business during spring training.

"People would come in and have lunch before the game, take the shuttle over and come back," owner Brian Dodson said.

He was a fan and team supporter, turning his establishment into a "Red Sox Bar," and donating money to support the team and its charities. He says the fans won't be back."People are not going to want to come downtown before the ballgame, then go all the way down south and then come back," he said.

Hunley said the loss will be tough to deal with on top of the belt-tightening he's seen from local customers.

"It's going to affect the businesses down here negatively in a big way," he said.

Some business owners feel betrayed and are bitter about the breakup.

"They abandoned us," said Skip Mufalli, owner of Toot's Dollar Store on First Street. "Fort Myers was good luck for them.

"You saw how they fell apart last year. They won't win any more championships," he predicted with a smirk.

The Red Sox, which have been warming up for the season in Fort Myers since 1993, broke their 86-year losing streak while practicing in Fort Myers, winning the 2004 and 2007 World Series. Dodson says many of the businesses went all out to back the team, helping fund raise for team charities, giving away tickets and sponsoring games.

"We and several other businesses really supported them," Dodson said. "Sometimes I feel like it's a stab in the back.

"It's sad to say, but I feel it is true: The Red Sox became so big and so popular that I think their administration said that in order for them to stay in the area, we had to do something more for them. They forgot who put them in the situation. Without the fans and businesses and people supporting them, I don't think they would have done as well as they did."

Virtually all of the downtown businesses are small shops and restaurants in which most of the owners work. They are not national chains that can absorb major economic hits, said Don Paight, executive director of the Fort Myers Redevelopment Agency.

"They are all mom and pops. It's definitely going to have an impact," Paight said

How the loss of the Red Sox ultimately will affect downtown businesses is unknown. Attempts to replace the team are proving difficult.

In 2003, the city couldn't afford to pay off $51 million of bonds for City of Palms Park and continue to pay for upgrades, maintenance and operations. So it turned the stadium over to the county, agreeing to continue to pay the now $15.1 million mortgage.

Lee County commissioners are trying to pump life back into the park, first looking to turn it into an aquatic center. But those talks failed in December, when the organization pitching the plan couldn't convince government officials that the numbers added up to a profit. The Lee County Sports Authority has booked 143 days for amateur events at the park, Paight reports. But those games don't fill the stands with fans like a Major League team does, business owners say.

The county is in talks with the Major League Baseball team from Washington, D.C.

"We're going to make every effort to bring the Washington Nationals to town," said County Commissioner Frank Mann, pointing out he doesn't think 16 or 17 ball games a year are enough to make or break the downtown businesses.

"I wouldn't predict gloom and doom for the downtown economy they (businesses) don't depend on the City of Palms Park I don't think anyone is going to go out of business because the Red Sox are moving."

Some downtown business owners agree.

"We will definitely miss them, and some businesses will be affected. But I don't think it's going to be as huge an impact as everyone is saying," said Pam Lemmerman, co-owner of the French Connection Restaurant on First Street, which has been in business 25 years.

Patti Price, co-owner of the Morgan House, at Patio de Leon, a mainstay restaurant that's been downtown almost as long as the City of Palms Park, said her company still has a love relationship with the team.

"We're one of their sponsors this year," she said. "We're going to have a batboy and a batgirl."

New stadium ready for baseball

The Red Sox unveiled a finished jetBlue ...

On March 17, the Morgan House is hoping to draw Red Sox fans downtown with a St. Patrick's Day party before and after the game.

Price also thinks fans driving from North Fort Myers, Punta Gorda, Port Charlotte and all parts north have to pass downtown to get to the games anyway, so stopping in before and after the game isn't a stretch.

"I don't think people will forget us," she said.Like the Morgan House, the downtown Hotel Indigo, on Broadway Street in the heart of the historic district, also is still courting the Red Sox.

Catherine O'Brien, the general manager, said the hotel is advertising in Boston, offering destination packages that include rental cars, sponsoring games and housing team administrators during spring training.

"The Red Sox asked us to partner with them," she said, adding that she doesn't think the team moving south some 14 miles will affect business.

"It hasn't so far," she said. "People have been coming down from Boston and we have 15 or 16 destination packages booked now."

And the Bostonians are all abuzz about the new JetBlue Park.

"People are very excited about the new stadium. There's a lot of interest and curiosity about it," she said.

Despite facing the loss of the Red Sox, downtown has experienced a shot of energy recently, said Paight, of the redevelopment agency. "In the past two years, 20 new businesses have opened downtown," he said.

David Hancock of Bloomington, Ill., takes a picture for friends outside City of Palms Park after the Boston Red Sox played their final Spring Training game at City of Palms Park against the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday, March 29, 2011. Tuesday's game marked the conclusion of Boston's 2011 Grapefruit League schedule and the final Red Sox game at City of Palms Park, Boston's spring home for the last 19 seasons since 1993. The Red Sox will move into a new facility in Lee County in 2012. Allie Garza/Staff

Photo by Allie Garza

David Hancock of Bloomington, Ill., takes a picture for friends outside City of Palms Park after the Boston Red Sox played their final Spring Training game at City of Palms Park against the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday, March 29, 2011. Tuesday's game marked the conclusion of Boston's 2011 Grapefruit League schedule and the final Red Sox game at City of Palms Park, Boston's spring home for the last 19 seasons since 1993. The Red Sox will move into a new facility in Lee County in 2012. Allie Garza/Staff

He credits the $60 million city renovation project, which turned the roads into brick-paved corridors, added decorative lighting and buried utilities underground. The improvements created a cozy, upscale, pedestrian-friendly atmosphere. He also said the River District Alliance, a coalition of downtown businesses so-named because of their proximity to the Caloosahatchee River, has created much of the draw for thousands of visitors and locals.

The first Friday of every month, more than a dozen art galleries feature art openings during Art Walk; every third Friday, more than a dozen bars, restaurants and galleries feature live music. Then every fourth Saturday, vintage and custom cars are paraded down the brick streets for the Downtown Car-Cruise-In. The district also holds many other downtown events regularly.

"These events have been terrific," Paight said, and the business owners agree. But they say it's not the same as when the Red Sox fans march into town.

"It's a completely different drawing of people," said Allie Buchman, co-owner of the Potomac Bead Co., a shop on First Street where patrons make their own jewelry. Buchman said most of the people who attend the downtown events are locals, not fans from parts north.

Everyone from government officials to longtime businesses will soon learn whether the kiss-off from the Red Sox will be the kiss of death for some merchants.

"It will be interesting to see what impact it has," said Lemmerman of French Connection.

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