NORTH FORT MYERS, Fla. — To Lee County resident Michael Thompson, the land surrounding the Lee Civic Center is more than just a 100-acre plot. It’s bright lights and ferris wheels when the fair comes to town every year.
But when the sun comes up, he says it doesn’t look the same.
“When you drive by it, it’s like ugh, is that the best they can do?” he asked.
Syd Kitson, owner and developer of Babcock Ranch - just 15 miles away from the Lee Civic Center plans to spruce the area up no matter the time of day. He wants to turn it into a hotel/resort with retail space.
Thompson who’s lived in Lee County for the last 20 years is on board for upgrades, but not at the cost of big events.
“The folks out here - they enjoy the more rural lifestyle. They enjoy having their children enrolled in 4H. They enjoy going to gun shows. They enjoy going to boat shows and RV shows and home and garden shows,” he said.
Thompson was upset when he learned Kitson put in a proposal for the land.
Lee County owns that land, and it’s currently managed by the Lee County Fair Association, but their lease ends this year. According to Kitson’s 50-page proposal, he would remove the main event center, the Lee Expo Center, livestock show rings, and horse barns among other things.
Lee County Commissioner Brian Hamman cleared some things up on Facebook after seeing a lot of people outraged, as if a decision had already been made. He says he hasn’t even set eyes on the proposals.
“Our staff is reviewing the proposals they’ve received. They’re looking at them, and vetting some of the ideas that were put forward,” he said. “Once all of those things get worked out and vetted, then it goes to the next step in the process, which is where it gets proposed to the commissioners.”
Hamman was born and raised in Lee County. He says the civic center was also a staple of his childhood. He says no plan to change the civic center will be approved, unless it spells out plans for the exact programs Thompson wants to preserve.
“We need to remember that at the end of the day, if it’s something that we don’t like, we can always vote against it,” said Hamman.
Thompson thinks if Kitson gets the project, a plan to preserve the agriculture program known as 4-H should come out of Kitson’s pocket.
“He, himself, and not the tax payers of Lee County, need to come out to East Lee County and purchase land, and he needs to reproduce what he’s knocking down if he does that deal with the county,” he said.
Kitson has already considered that. According to his plan, he’ll work with the county to find another facility for the 4-H or to relocate it to one of his properties - possibly Babcock Ranch.
Hamman welcomes Thompson and anyone else interested to the proposal presentation happening Friday.
“This is a public facility. It’s their facility. They should definitely have input into what happens there,” said Hamman.
That meeting’s happening Friday at 1:00 p.m. at the Lee County Administration Building. Hamman says the meeting when commissioners actually join the conversation and eventually vote on who manages the Lee Civic Center next, could be months away.