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Exasperated business owners want construction 24/7

They hope night work will speed up Estero Boulevard project

February 13, 2016
By John Morton ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

The bad January weather, with an El Nino year promising more. The ongoing construction along the island's only thoroughfare. The maddening traffic snarl. The brown gulf water, courtesy of Lake Okeechobee discharges. The Canadian dollar at an historic low.

Oh, and tack on the fear of the Zika virus, which prompted a declaration of a state of emergency for Florida.

It's a daunting combination, and it's proving to be too much for many local businesses. On Feb. 9, Bud Nocera, president of the Fort Myers Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, invited them to air their concerns in a meeting at Town Hall.

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The Lehne Burger establishment has spent months trapped behind construction barriers and equipment. Its owner reports a dip in sales exceeding 50 percent.

Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker was on hand, and business owners acknowledged they couldn't control much of what they were facing - the exception being road construction. The ongoing Estero Boulevard work - a county project that began last fall - has at its current pace more than six years left to go.

"I can't withstand six years of this," said Truly Scrumptious owner Michelle Pyle, whose business is at the island's south end where the construction has even yet to arrive.

Said Carla Pine, owner of Salty Dog Gallery & Gifts which sits in the heart of the construction, "On TV, they are reporting it takes sitting in two-and-a-half hours of traffic to get here. Next year, two-thirds of us will be gone."

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Those on hand asked Kiker, a former Fort Myers Beach resident and its former mayor, to take the lead and expedite the project through the addition of night-time work. Some business owners asked that the days be construction-free during the tourism season, and others requested that work take place 24/7 until the project is complete.

Kiker told the business owners that night-time construction would be 30-percent more costly, but he would nonetheless research the idea of figuring it into the budget for the next segment of the project.

"I'm making this a high priority - we only have seven or eight weeks left of season. We've got to get going on this," he said.

Kaye Molnar, spokeswoman for the project, warned of risks associated with night-time work, including the challenges of handling mishaps in the dark.

"What if a water main breaks?" she asked. "It would take much longer to repair. In fact, we had one break today."

Nocera asked owners of hotels if they'd feel the wrath of their guests due to noise at night.

"Yes, I probably would," said Neil Hopgood, general manager of DiamondHead Beach Resort.

Nocera said a survey returned by business owners covering the months of September, October and November showed an average dip in revenue between 20 and 30 percent when compared to the previous year.

"It's not good news, and now we're beginning to see (lodging) cancellations due to the brown water," Nocera said.

Jackie Liszak, owner of the Sea Gypsy Inn, vouched for that.

"We just had the third cancellation this week, and one was a two-week stay, because of the brown water," she said. "And that's a big deal when you've only got four suites."

Jessie Titus of Fort Myers Beach Realty reported that realtors are missing appointments due to traffic, and that the island is losing day-trippers "in droves."

"You might as well put a big 'closed' sign on the top of the bridge," she said.

Perception was a big issue for business owners, with Hopgood likening it to the BP oil spill of 2010.

"Our biggest problem is perception," he said. "We live and die by what people say on things like Trip Advisor."

And while things are bad now, the fear is that the true fallout is yet to be seen.

"Next year, things will be exponentially worse," said Travis Owen, owner of Dolphin Inn Resort.

One person said a little goodwill was in order, suggesting that paid parking be free between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. in hopes of drawing more business.

Mostly, the construction setting was to blame as business owners described scenes of mothers wheeling baby strollers through muddy and dangerous situations. Others complained that workers stood around too much and that too few flaggers were in place to move traffic along.

Mike Lehnberg of Lehne Burger said his restaurant is down more than 50 percent, and felt the construction workers were inconsiderate, making his establishment hard to reach.

"They park the machines wherever they want," he said. "I'm blocked in."

At the end, Mayor Anita Cereceda reminded business owners to stay positive and ride out the storm.

"Just think of how nice our island will be when it's all done," she said. "That's what you have to believe and that's what you have to tell people."

Cereceda and Kiker told the group they'd be reporting back to it in a week regarding potential changes in the construction process.

Judy Haataja, a local Realtor, wasn't buying it.

"We came here to hear a solution," she said, "and now we're hearing you'll get back to us."



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