Fleamasters in Fort Myers could be neighbor to region's largest food truck park

Bill Smith
Fort Myers News-Press

As with booths teeming with supplies, household items, trinkets, decorations and a range of products from the quirky to the essential, there is no shortage of on-the-go food at Fleamasters marketplace.

The flea market on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard could become home to the region's largest food truck park with as many as 40 vendors parked at the eastern end of the Fleamasters market. The flea market would continue.

Fans of grab-and-eat foods ranging from ice cream to burgers and macaroni and cheese may find the flea market basics — good old comfort foods — joined by a sea of food trucks with ethnic and sometimes exotic foods.

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The owner of the property, United Flea Markets of Denver, has been in talks with the city of Fort Myers about the ambitious food truck project.

United bought the property and the business from Andrew Steele, who had owned Fleamasters since the mid-1980s. The sale to United Flea Markets closed in March 2020, just before businesses closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Several weeks after selling Fleamasters for more than $6 million, Steele, an icon who mentored vendors who set up shop in his sprawling complex, died after a long illness. He was 77.

This plot of land just east of the Fleamasters Flea Market could be home to a permanent food truck park. Planning is in its infancy stages.

The flea market is open Friday through Sunday. Entrepreneurs who operate their businesses along the aisles and corridors of Fleamasters say they're in the dark.

"We really don't know what's going on there yet," said Diane Kilmer, who runs a booth selling Polish sausages and grilled foods and another that features beer and hot dogs. "I've heard rumors, that's all it is."

Kilmer says the rumors include talk of an amusement park on part of the property.

A spokeswoman for United said there are "no plans at this time," and the discussions about a food truck park in Fort Myers are "preliminary and ongoing."

Customers enjoy a carriage ride at Fleamasters Fleamarket in Fort Myers.

United Flea Markets bought the property 

Fort Myers city officials take the discussions seriously. It will mean developing a city food truck ordinance or may place the ordinance on a fast track to comply with state legislation that took effect this year adding more regulation to the food truck industry.

Regulations for food truck parks allow many trucks to set up on land that is big enough and has appropriate facilities. Others can park, one at a time, at individual property locations.

Consultants to United Flea Markets have made a pitch to city leaders, explaining plans for developing the east end of the Fleamasters property for use as a food truck park. 

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Discussions about the possible plans from United Flea Markets were enough to interest City Manager Marty Lawing and Community Development Director Steve Belden in bringing the city council a specific food truck ordinance to give potential vendors a framework for what local rules would be like.

"We have had a lot of interest in food truck parks," Belden said in briefing the council. "A food truck park is different from what we allow now, where you can put up one food truck on a piece of property, operate it and that's it, so we really don't mind if people have a pretty large piece of land and it's going to have different food trucks."

A plot of land just east of the Fleamasters Flea Market could be home to a permanent food truck park. Planning is in its infancy stages.

Lawing indicated the property owners have a plan for upgrading the use of the property to accommodate a full-sized food truck park.

"There would be security on site. The trucks really don't leave. They are parked so close together, you take one out and you have to put it back with a forklift kind of thing," Lawing said.

City officials decided to take another look at the planned food truck rules and pulled the discussion from a city council agenda several weeks ago.

Custom Roasts by Alex offers locally roasted coffees inside Fleamasters Fleamarket in Fort Myers.

"We had a food truck ordinance amendment (ready) a month or two, and that was tabled," Belden said. "We've had at least one food truck park developer come in and talk about what they wanted to do related to a food truck park."

Belden noted the Celebration Park food truck park in Naples, a smaller operation of about eight trucks that also features live music. 

"I think Fleamasters would be a good site for it if we wanted to do it," said Ward 5 Councilman Fred Burson.

Fleamasters has been an attraction for residents and winter visitors alike, a go-to place to find bargains, become absorbed in the unusual or find a long-sought replacement for the missing piece of a family heirloom. 

The ongoing twin lobster special is just $17 at A Little Bite of Maine in Fleamasters Fleamarket in Fort Myers.

Food is a big part of it. There are edibles on every aisle ranging from sandwiches, macaroni, lobster, and fresh produce to funnel cakes, ice cream, coffee and beer. People stop and eat, sticking around to continue their quest for bargains.

In contrast, food truck offerings could see a different audience. Food truck meals may cost more than your average fairgrounds lunch and sometimes attracts people with an appetite for a variety of flavors and creations rather than comfort food staples that people grew up eating. 

The Fleamasters site from Mission Street to Michigan Avenue link leaves a lot of room at the eastern tip that is not being used for flea market sales or parking. 

"I have met with others who are interested in setting up food trucks as well, on MLK, close to downtown," Belden said. "There is some interest. This is something I think we should think about moving forward, at least with that part of the regulations."

A plot of land just east of the Fleamasters Flea Market could be home to a permanent food truck park. Planning is in its infancy stages.

Steele opened Fleamasters in Fort Myers in the mid-1980s, after operating a similar business next to an RV resort he developed in Pasco County.  His vendors remain loyal to him, two years after his death.

"Nobody will ever be running it like Mr. Steele," vendor Kilmer said of the late owner known for taking a personal interest in the success of people who leased spaces at Fleamasters. "He was fantastic."