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Town gets the straight scoop on TDC criteria

May 4, 2016
By John Morton ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Unless it's a substantial public park, with plenty of room for parking, you can mostly forget about receiving Lee County bed-tax dollars to support a shoreline or beachfront project.

That's the message delivered Monday to the Town Council by Tamara Pigott, the executive director of the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau. It's the organization that governs the county's Tourist Development Council (TDC), which directs reimbursement money toward destination locales like Fort Myers Beach.

With that, Fort Myers Beach can say goodbye to its efforts to get assistance in cosmetic improvements to Times Square and the rebuilding of a dock it tore down at the end of Hercules Drive - two requests it recently made but were shot down.

The town has scratched its head lately in regard to having projects rejected, despite generating the highest percentage (14.6) of bed-tax dollars of any Lee County municipality, prompting it to invite Pigott to better explain the system.

She said a change in the rules in 2015 set the stage for a much more stringent set of criteria.

"Things are really tight for what it can be used for," Pigott said of the TDC coffers. "I know people around this table are wondering what exactly it pays for."

The answer to that comes in the form of maintenance, she said, which represents almost half of the TDC's expenditures under the beach and shoreline category.

The town's desires have often been geared toward bay-front improvements on a small scale, such as benches, decks, docks and kayak launches, to increase public use and access. All are now out of consideration by the TDC.

That leaves the town, which sits on a narrow and landlocked island just 6 miles long, in a bit of no-man's land, council member Anita Cereceda said.

"What we are calling bayside access is what you call a bayside park," Cereceda, who is a TDC board member, said to Pigott. "But the residents of our neighborhoods don't want a public park."

Pigott agreed the change in focus with TDC isn't a good match for Fort Myers Beach. "For your community, it may be unfortunate," she said.

Beyond maintenance, areas where TDC dollars have packed up a punch locally include the establishment of Crescent Park Family Beach, Newton Park and the Mound House, she said. During the 17 years the TDC has existed, $24.5 million has been doled out for Fort Myers Beach, Pigott reported.

One area where the town has underutilized potential dollars is in the area of arts and attraction, receiving only 2 percent ($56,000) in that category in history. The local art association is an example of an entity that benefits.

"That's an area where you could use some work," Pigott said.

Asked by council member Tracey Gore if that fund could support some of the efforts to re-establish the town's struggling Bay Oaks Recreation Campus through a variety of programs, Pigott said "Yes, arts and attractions could be a possibility for what you're trying to do there."

As for the town's history with the application process - something Gore recently said she was told was considered "a hot mess" by the TDC - Gore insisted that the requests come from the council and no one else. Often, the staff has submitted requests on its own.

"We tell you what to ask for," Gore said to staff members. "No more confusion. Plus, this will take staff out of the hot seat."

Furthermore, Mayor Dennis Boback last month asked that Town Manager Don Stilwell be the one making presentations on the town's behalf to the TDC, hoping to give the proposals some authority and a consistent face. Most recently, public works director Scott Baker has been making the presentations.

Cereceda said the Sanibel city manager has been doing the same.

She also said the often-changing council makes it a tricky pursuit.

"As the council changes, the desires change," Cereceda said.

Either way, Stilwell said the dependence on TDC funds has proven to be a slippery slope for the town.

"We create an expectation for a year and a half, and then find out there's no money coming for it," he said.



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