FORT MYERS — In February, Joe Florentine bought the former Sky Bar property in downtown Fort Myers, a four-story, 10,000-square foot brick building he plans to turn into a steakhouse, martini bar and rooftop lounge.
With the purchase, the New Jersey-based real estate investor believes he's positioned himself on the cusp of a revitalization along the Caloosahatchee River.
"Downtown is just prime to become a greater entertainment district than it is already," Florentine said. "I know many people lived in the area used to go there on a regular basis. It was quite a popular place."
After falling on hard times, the victim of an economic downturn and seemingly never-ending construction, business is once again buzzing in downtown Fort Myers. About 30 new ventures have opened or remain in the works since early 2010, and a $5.3-million waterfront redevelopment continues to trudge along.
"We're always looking for more, but fortunately we seem to have strong interest here right now from businesses opening up," said Don Paight, executive director of the city's Community Redevelopment Agency. "Given the economy the way it is, things are moving along pretty good."
In March, construction began on the River District project, which will divert part of the river into a retention basin. Developers hope restaurateurs and retailers will build along the new waterfront walkway, and Paight said agency officials are nearly a month into a 120-day exclusive negotiating period with a developer to build a new hotel.
The basin dig is expected to be completed late this year.
"I think now that some of these developers are seeing the projects actually being built, they're actually very interested," said Kaye Molnar, a public information consultant hired by the city for the River District project.
In the past year, several businesses have thrown open their doors, such as Charme, a boutique clothing shop located on First Street. The store's co-owner, Kathy Bogaert, said visitors from Naples have returned to downtown Fort Myers since the completion of the city's downtown streetscape project, which involved tearing up streets to replace underground utilities and installing brick roads.
"We get groups of three, four, five women coming for a day of lunch and shopping," Bogaert said. "I think business has been great."
Few are banking on a downtown comeback more than Zak Kearns, who plans to open three restaurants there. In March, Kearns debuted Ford's Garage, a modern burger-and-beer stop, on First Street. By early November, he also plans to open Firestone's Steakhouse at Florentine's property, as well as a Mexican cantina along First Street.
"Nobody really wanted to hang out there before they completed the brick roads and streetscapes and lights," Kearns said. "But now, with that done and with them bringing the water down here, it's just going to be enjoyable."
Bonnie Willar, owner of Cat's Meow Jewelers, said progress has been undeniable, but she added the city still needs to address a few issues. Street parking is limited to two hours in many areas, which isn't long enough for eaters and shoppers, Willar said. Police also have been aggressive in ticketing drivers who exceed the two-hour limit, she said.
"That's our biggest challenge right now," Willar said. "To the minute, they know how long you've been here."
Bogaert said the area needs a new hotel and a major retailer.
"I'd love to see a good-sized anchor store come in," Bogaert said. "There was some rumor that Urban Outfitters was going to come in, but they're going to Naples. You would think we would worry about that, that they're going to be our competition. But the more the merrier. A really big name would be nice."
Right now, the focus remains on attracting restaurants to downtown, with retailers to follow, Paight said. While an anchor store would be welcomed, the focus remains on independent shops, he said. Of the roughly 50 downtown retailers and restaurants, only two, Starbucks and Subway, are chains.
As for the hotel, officials have made their requirements clear: it must be between 200 and 220 rooms, and a major brand name must be attached.
"We're not going to take a second- or third-tier hotel," Paight said.
Florentine, who wants to double his $10-million worth of investments in Fort Myers by year's end, remains optimistic that development will continue.
"I know they have a lot of things in the works," Florentine said. "It's a very business-friendly city there. They go out of their way to be as accommodating as possible."
So far, the downtown area's bar and art offerings have satisfied Vincent Filippini. The south Fort Myers resident has been downtown twice since moving three months ago from North Bergen, N.J., about 15 minutes outside New York City.
"This is almost like a little bit of New York City right here in Florida," Filippini said. "I was expecting to miss all that stuff, the record stores and art galleries. But this little downtown area, even though it's only three or four blocks, it has everything compact right here."