Fort Myers Beach treasure not coming back after Hurricane Ian; condo project in its place
A repeated theme in conversations and community gatherings has been the loss of Old Florida in Hurricane Ian's destruction and in the rebuild to come as part of elevated construction standards in flood zones.
The latest treasure confirmed not returning is the vintage gulf-front Carousel Inn on Fort Myers Beach although a deal was already in the works before the storm's battering.
"We could have walked away from the purchase," said Tim O'Neill, CEO of Dublin Real Estate Investment Group LLC. "We had no hesitation in completing the transaction, which shows just how bullish we are. (The) motel was purchased for $7 million with no price adjustment, regardless of the hurricane."
Evacuations of guests and workers and the violent storm served as a final chapter for what co-owner Michael Keilty said "has been a mainstay on the south end of Estero Island, (with) many families returning year after year and generation after generation. A number of families returned to the Carousel for over 30 years."
Opened on Dec. 20, 1964 and built for $285,000 with prestressed concrete, the hotel survived through numerous transactions and storms over the past six decades, but not a hot real estate market nor one of the most powerful tropical systems in American history.
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On the outside, the damage doesn't appear as severe as many of you said in interviews or on social media, and it felt like a little bit of a victory over the Sept. 28 cyclone that stole so much from Estero Island.
"Even though they are being tore down, at least it wasn’t because of Ian. Made my heart happy," said Tera Lynn of Ohio, an annual visitor who stayed two weeks prior to the pummeling. "I’m so proud of this old place. (It) is not every day you go somewhere like a hotel you want to continue going back to. We absolutely loved it."
"If they are closing, it still makes me happy to know that it withstood the storm," said annual visitor Mary Ogden Schultz. "We have been going there every year for 15 years. We always stayed in the same room. It has always been my happy place. We were there in June."
'Cried my eyes out'
But Alex Cass found it in shambles upon his return after evacuating the property that featured kitchens, shuffleboard and a heated pool and where he lived as general manager the past three years after a GM gig at Olde Marco Island Inn & Suites.
"I cried my eyes out," said Cass, a Boston University graduate. The inn "sustained massive damage from 15 feet of storm surge. The entire first floor of the hotel was fully submerged in ocean water. (I) will be OK. I'm mostly upset at all my music equipment I lost, 20 years of songs I've written, beats, compositions. All saved on memory cards that were destroyed. Over 3,000 songs I've written. All gone."
"Sadness" also enveloped regular visitor Colby Aiken as the lodge brought back memories of his mother.
"So many years as our home away from home. Our safe haven. Our happy place," Aiken said. "We would stay there while my mom was going through health issues. I mourned on the beach at Carousel the day she passed."
Residents worry about the beach's evaporating Old Florida charm after Hurricane Ian making way for major, pricey and more dense development like the 254-room Jimmy Buffett-themed Margaritaville that plans to resume construction.
"We do not need more Margaritavilles on Fort Myers Beach," said Cassius Upton, born and raised on the island, to "ruin our town."
Earlier this year at at 6240 Estero Blvd., O'Neill began constructing what's now known as Gulfside Twelve adjacent to the 27-unit Carousel. That's part of a trend of new higher priced housing coming to the island that predates the disaster and ties into federal tax cuts at the end of last decade providing the rich with more disposable income.
"It’s a desire to have your main home, second or third home in the state," O'Neill said. "Prices have been going up due to the triple lure of sun, sand and water. People from all over the country are moving to South Florida, thanks to the climate and notion of having no state income tax."
In this case, the $30 million project actually means less density with its 12 total units, which O'Neill considers a plus with the "lack of foot traffic."
Condos selling for $3.9 million
With Phase One being four condos — three have sold — the motel becomes Phase Two with eight slots totaling at least 4,000 square feet each featuring four ensuite bedrooms and selling for $3.9 million or more.
The market is dictating the pricing, and the hurricane aftermath has provided more fuel, he said.
"We believe that the upward trend in pricing will continue given that inventory is very low on Fort Myers Beach due to Ian’s destruction," O'Neill said. "But we also believe that older, smaller homes that existed and were lost will be built back as larger properties. You see this happening already in Bonita, and we expect that trend to continue elsewhere across the area."
Rooted in that trend, many islanders have long supported free market, economic and property rights values that align closely with the past two governors and former President Trump, who received more than 60% of the beach's 2020 vote in his loss.
O'Neill said enterprises like his mean stronger construction to handle the punishment from hurricanes.
"The timeline of Phase One of Gulfside Twelve wasn’t really affected by Hurricane Ian, give or take a few weeks at most," he said. "Brand new buildings will be built to code with the specifications that will withstand the type of storm that Ian produced. People will be much more confident in their building realizing that every building that had been built in the last several years withstood Hurricane Ian."
And that's why O'Neill stuck to Thursday's deal, literally hell or high water:
"We look at both the risk and reward. We know that Florida has hurricanes, but we believe that by building a quality product and having great partnerships, we are very confident that we can deliver something that buyers want and desire. There’s not a lot of inventory right now and many people are looking for a different type of living. We can offer that peace of mind."
One of those partnerships include Wednesday's hiring of Clive Daniel Home CEO Daniel Lubner and his Naples-based furniture and interior decorating team to complete the design.
"As a kid, Fort Myers Beach was my playground," said Lubner, a Fort Myers High graduate who's pained by not only what Ian did to his community but the implications. "Following new codes will mean many people will be priced out of returning to Fort Myers Beach or the surrounding islands. This is a heartbreaking reality. But code works, for the most part, so like we have always done, our community will rebuild."
Projects like this are important to help lead the way for the restoration of the Beach, Lubner said.
“Our goal post-hurricane has been to respond, restore and rebuild. We are truly maximizing our efforts to accelerate this project and to contribute," said Lubner, who when asked, shared other undertakings he had not publicized. "We have a handful of team members that lost their homes. Like many, in Southwest Florida, we have done what we can to help them find housing and have helped with the furniture.
"Luckily our warehouse and stores remained dry, so it put us in a position to utilize our logistical team to begin helping transporting goods to those in need. (My) kids' school has 12 faculty members who lost their homes. That is a microcosm of what happened in the community. We are quietly doing our part to help as many people as we can rebuild their lives."
First FMB restaurant reopens after Ian
Lubner also enlisted Kimberly McNatt, his director of business development, to create a series of events to provide information on the proper steps to restore and rebuild.
"Over the last few weeks, we have been working on community outreach," Lubner said. "The need will be extraordinary. We have gone through several weather events and understand the staggered recovery timing that the community will go through."
The most recent gathering was held Wednesday, featuring a panel discussion of industry leaders held at Lubner's Naples' location.
O'Neill is targeting completion of at least the first phase in the summer, and expects the ensuite concept to continue to emerge in the region.
"We have several other opportunities that we are currently looking at," he said. "We are also looking at Marco Island" where he has an office.
But some other Beach hotels, at the moment, don't have plans for such a transformation.
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Although not expected to finish any time soon, hotels like the DiamondHead Beach Resort, Best Western Plus, and the Lani Kai, which touts is Old Florida vibe, plan to rebuild or renovate.
Progress is coming in other ways including Fort Myers Beach's boil water notice being rescinded for the first time in six weeks and the reopening of Bayfront Bistro.
"It's a tremendous symbolic event for the town and for the island," then Mayor Ray Murphy said, before his last Town Council meeting. "It's the first restaurant to reopen since the storm, and that gives us hope. That gives us all hope."
Publix return: A month or more away
Co-owner Shawn LeMarie said the initial plan is to open from 11 a.m. to about 6:30 p.m. but expects adjustments along the way.
"We're playing it by ear," LeMarie said. "Just like there's no manual really to figure out how to get boats out of the mangroves, piled on top of each other, there's really no manual to running a restaurant open-up like this in this situation. We're going to do our best. Our prayers are out there for everybody. We know everybody is going through some hardship, and we're going to do our best to make it a little bit easier."
The goal is for the eatery, located behind the still closed Publix mid-island at 4761 Estero Blvd., is to serve as an escape from the challenging surroundings, he said.
"We're right on the Estero Bay," LeMarie said. "If you're looking at the TVs or you're in the bar area, down there looking out — don't look too far — you wouldn't know that anything was going on right now. I think that's a nice thing to get away from all the things on the island that we're looking at all the time."
Publix next door is working on its return by the end of the year, according to town officials.
Each step is huge on the island's long road to recovery, Murphy said.
"I'm already looking forward to the future here on the beach," he said. "All this nonsense that we've been hearing about, 'Well, we're going to be like Naples' and 'the vultures are going to be coming in here,' that's just that. That's nonsense. What we're going to do here going forward is, we're going to elicit complete town buy-in from the people here on Fort Myers Beach, as we always have."
Based at the Naples Daily News, Columnist Phil Fernandez (email@example.com) writes In the Know as part of the USA TODAY NETWORK, which supplemented this report. Support Democracy and subscribe to a newspaper.