NORTH NAPLES — The glitz is gone.
After dressing up an abandoned Albertsons grocery store for four flashy, high-end art fairs during the past two years, David Lester had to let his lease go on the building off Immokalee Road in North Naples, saying it didn't work out the way he expected.
Collier County's restrictions on signs and limitations on the building's use made it too difficult to successfully operate there, he said.
"I just turned it back over to Albertsons," said Lester, owner of International Fine Art Expositions in Bonita Springs.
The art fairs held in February and March did OK, but were hurt by the "economic malaise" and the county's tough rules on signs, he said.
The fairs brought in everything from rare Renoir paintings and oversized Graff diamonds to graffiti wall murals and iconic photos.
"The problem is that if you can't promote it visibly, it's very hard to make it commercially viable," said Lester, a seasoned show organizer.
He said there's a disconnect between county government regulations and what's good for local businesses.
When Lester put up a row of fluttering flags in a rainbow of colors to promote his first international art and antique fair in Naples along Immokalee and Livingston roads last year, he received a verbal warning from a county inspector with code enforcement, who told him they weren't allowed and must be removed. The county's land development code prohibits such flags.
Lester was only allowed to put up two banners at the road entrances, not larger than 32 square feet, said Kitchell Snow, a county supervisor for code enforcement.
He said Lester was never fined for the roadside flags and the county never issued a notice of violation. Fines for this type of violation can be as much as $1,000 a day.
The county gave Lester until April 4, 2011, to correct his first violation – after his first two fairs were over, according to a code enforcement report.
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"He wasn't required to take them down immediately," Snow said. "They stayed up during the duration of the event."
During his second fair last year, Lester put up 20-foot to 30-foot inflatable sculptures facing Immokalee Road, triggering complaints and ultimately a notice of violation. However, no citation was issued so there wasn't a fine.
In a letter responding to the notice of violation, Lester wrote that he had received verbal permission from the county to display the inflatable art. He also wrote that had the code officer known more about them, she would have realized they weren't signs, but major works of art. He asked for the notice of violation to be withdrawn.
Lester also wanted to put banners on trucks to advertise his fairs on site, but county rules didn't allow that either.
Code enforcement is focused on education and compliance and the department took that approach with Lester, not charging him any fines or shutting down any of his events, Snow said.
"I think he was treated fairly," he said of Lester. "I think the county went above and beyond to educate him."
Lester said the county was "generally cooperative" and county inspectors made it clear that if he continued to violate the sign rules he would be fined.
"You can't blame them for doing their job," Lester said.
He said the Collier County Sheriff's Office was helpful in directing traffic and the county allowed overflow parking at a nearby park.
Lester and his wife, Lee Ann, expected the five-day fairs in the Naples area to eventually become "destination events," drawing thousands of visitors from around the globe. The couple hosts similar fairs in Miami Beach, Palm Beach and London that have been successful. But in those other locations, the Lesters said they don't face the same limits on signs to market their events.
"In Miami, they allow us generous signs and banners and promotion and all the parking and all the things we have the trouble with in Naples," he said. "They are very easy with us."
In Palm Beach and Miami, the fairs are held at convention centers. David Lester said there's a need for such a center in Naples, or at least in south Lee County, to host big events, such as his art fairs.
The Lesters also planned to host other events at the old Albertsons after cleaning it up and turning it into the Naples International Pavilion in 2011. When he signed the lease, Lester said he didn't understand that he'd only be allowed to use the building a few weeks out of the year because he didn't have a permanent business there.
"These things happen," he said. "It's nobody's fault."
While he saw interest from other groups wanting to use the international pavilion, the opportunities were limited by restrictions on signs and use. An event can run no longer than 14 days at the building and it can only be used 28 days out of the year.
"I can't commercially maintain a giant building 12 months a year at high rent and have the restrictions on it that I do," Lester said.
After doing his fairs, he discovered parking was a bigger problem than expected.
The grocery store was an approved use in a planned unit development, or PUD, that includes Carlton Lakes, a 245-acre residential community to the north of it.
Each time they hosted a fair, the Lesters had to get a temporary-use permit from the county and the permit specifically stated that no "wind devices" were allowed, according to a code enforcement report.Temporary permits are designed to allow businesses to do events they don't normally do, such as a store that wants to do a sidewalk sale or a church that wants to have a revival in a tent outside, Snow said.
"The county understands that businesses often need to spark interest for the business," Snow said. "One of the ways to do that is to have outside events."
There is a good reason for the restrictions on signs and that's to keep Collier County from "becoming an eyesore," he said.
"All of these ordinances are designed for the health, safety and welfare of the community," Snow said.
As for his art shows in Naples, Lester said he's not giving up on them. He said he plans to bring them back on his "floating convention center." He and his wife own SeaFair, a 228-foot mega yacht and traveling art gallery. They rent space to exhibitors from around the world.
Asked where he planned to dock his art show yacht in Naples next year, Lester said: "I'm working on it. It's not a problem at all."
__ Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden