March 08, 2021

What will happen to Lee Civic Center? Kitson & Partners proposes to demolish the 42-year-old building, redevelop the 100-acre property

By: Vicki Parsons - IT


David Dorsey

Fort Myers News-Press


The Lee County government is shopping future uses for the Lee Civic Center at Bayshore Road and State Road 31 in North Fort Myers.

One of the two proposals includes demolishing the 42-year-old building and redeveloping the 100-acre property.

Kitson & Partners, the developers of Babcock Ranch, proposes transforming the property into a hotel/resort, restaurant, retail, office, public use/park and other civic uses, according to the 52-page proposal submitted to the county.

Kitson also pledges to widen the State Road 31 bridge over the Caloosahatchee River, make sidewalk and other road improvements and enhance water flow in the area. This would provide Babcock Ranch residents five miles to the north easier access to and from greater Lee County.

Kitson’s proposal also said it would find other homes on its nearby properties to host some of the events held at the civic center.

The other proposal, by current leaseholders Southwest Florida & Lee County Fair, pledges to continue managing the property, as it has done since 1996. The fair, gun shows, RV shows, 4H club gatherings, graduation ceremonies, citrus industry expositions and other events would continue to occur year-round at 11831 Bayshore Road, according to the fair’s 116-page proposal submitted to the county.

At 1 p.m. Friday at the Lee County Publics Works Building at 2115 Second St. in Fort Myers, a public evaluation meeting regarding the future of the Lee Civic Center will be held. The two proposals will be discussed.

The fair, held at the civic center since just after it opened November 1978, typically has rolled over its lease every 10 years. In 2020, the county only gave the fair a one-year lease extension. Randy Crone, past president and current operations manager for the fair and a 60-year resident of Lee County, said he knew then the county would give other entities a chance at taking over the management of the property.

“We’re here for the community, and the fair is for the community,” Crone said of his non-profit organization. “It’s for people who can’t afford to go to Busch Gardens or Disney World. But it’s more than just the fair.”

Crone said he would be very disappointed if the county decided to end the fair’s management of the civic center after 25 years.

“We don’t want the county to be without a fair,” Crone said. “We would find a new place for the fair.

“We feel we’re coming back. We have had a great partnership with the county. We’re optimistic. Does the building need some work? Yes, it needs some work. We’ll help the county, but we cannot afford to tear it down and put it back up again.”

The Lee County government did not respond to an interview request but emailed a clarification on Friday’s public meeting. The county initiated the “Invitations to Negotiate” procedures Jan. 8, which invited outside entities to submit proposals.

“The purpose is to review the proposals,” wrote Lee County director of communications Betsy Clayton of Friday’s meeting. “The only decision that will be made by the staff committee is whether to invite the two proposers to make presentations. And that would be at a meeting (no date yet set) that will be publicly noticed on our website.”

Syd Kitson and his company, Kitson & Partners, developed Babcock Ranch, the growing private home community with 1,000 homes and planned for up to 19,500 homes. Syd Kitson could not be reached for an interview Wednesday. His company’s proposal laid out its case to assume control of the center on behalf of the county.

Kitson released a statement through a media relations firm Wednesday.

“With Babcock Ranch located just up the road, we share a vested interest with the county in ensuring that whatever is done there adds value for the region – so we accepted the invitation to reimagine what could be done in collaboration with the county,” the statement said. “It is up to the commission to determine what best serves the citizens of Lee County.  We fully understand the county may choose to go in a different direction and will completely support whatever path they choose to pursue.”


Residents and fans of the fair and the civic center have been expressing outrage over the past two days on the social media platform Facebook.

One of them, Todd Reed, grew up not far from the civic center. He obtained the two proposals and put them on his website.

“This was kept hush hush, under the table,” said Reed, who lives in Georgia, where he operates TR Designs & Events, a wedding and event planning business. He visits his parents and the fair every year. “We dealt with the fair my entire life. We’ve dealt with the traffic my entire life. It’s obviously close to my heart.

“I’m not one to understand the legal mumbo jumbo. My biggest thing is the under-tableness of it all. We’re talking about demolishing a property that’s owned by our government. Then let somebody else come in and build more hotels and more shopping that we don’t need.

“We’re rural. We want the agriculture. We don’t want the shopping centers. The government doesn’t hand you everything. It is hard work to make a life. That’s what we stand to lose. The proposal, it says nothing about the fair. So that will pretty much be gone. Our kids are the ones who are going to lose. That’s what people don’t understand.”

Amy Cochran, a 15-year Alva resident and a fifth-generation Southwest Florida native, called the ruralness of that area a part of her DNA.

“I don’t have anything personal against Kitson & Partners and their group, but I just want to say when they come into Alva and Olga, it’s the antithesis of why people come to our area,” said Cochran, who is self-employed, managing Lee County Land, LLC, a real estate company. “Our little Alva charm is not looking for hotels and shopping centers and condominiums. That’s not why people come out here from the city to find a place to decompress. We love when people come out to see us. But we don’t want you to come out and change us.

“We’re very proud of our history and things like 4H. It’s not just the fair.”

Cochran expressed dismay the county would spend more than $77 million on JetBlue Park for the Boston Red Sox and more than $48 million on renovations to Hammond Stadium for the Minnesota Twins, who train in those facilities eight weeks per year, but not invest in cleaning up the civic center.

“I’m disheartened that this would even be entertained,” Cochran said of demolishing the civic center and redeveloping the county land. “I get that there’s a process. But we, a community, should have more of a voice. And it’s happening right before our eyes.”

The outrage prompted Hamman to release a two-minute statement on his Lee County Commissioner Facebook feed Wednesday morning.

“The Lee Civic Center is reaching the point where a lot of rumors are really boiling over on Facebook,” Hamman said, explaining that with more than one entity expressing an interest in leasing the land, the county should listen to both parties and then pick one that’s in the best interest of the community.

“No. 1, no decisions have been made yet,” Hamman said. “We’re not even near making a decision right now. No. 2, the commissioners themselves actually have not been presented with either of the proposals. We’re at the staff level right now. What comes to the commissioners might not be what’s in those proposals now.

“No. 3, this is the thing that I’m most bothered by. People act like the commissioners are driving this proposal from Kitson. That is something that a private company is proposing. I can tell you this. My vision for the civic center is a facility very much like the one we remember growing up in the area. I have great memories of it as a child. I’d like to see it cleaned up. I’d like to see it better-maintained. I’d like to see more events than it currently has. I’d like to see the stands fixed up, and I’d love to see the ability to continue having graduations and 4H there.”