FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. — For the first time since construction began in 2021, Fox 4 is getting a behind-the-scenes look at the Margaritaville Resort ahead of its phased reopening beginning this fall. Margaritaville faced its fair share of controversy over the last decade or so when its owners began buying up property in 2015. However, despite any controversy and challenges since, the resort says the sentiment from the community has now changed since Hurricane Ian. The story of Margaritaville is shifting. With the now anticipated opening just months away, the resort feels it could be a jumpstart to the town's economic recovery and a sign of hope for the future of Fort Myers Beach.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Fox 4 got a hard-hat tour of Margaritaville resort as crews were working on the finishing touches and we began the tour at the pool, or what General Manager Dave Cesario says will be known as the 'Fins Up Beach Club'.
"It's a beautiful resort pool," Cesario said. "As you can see our pool has zero entry."
The pool takes almost an entire parcel of land on Fort Myers Beach, where crews are working on building a sound stage, a bridge to walk across and rebuilding an entire building that holds a piece of Fort Myers Beach history: the Old Cigar Hut. Margaritaville was told to preserve the piece of local history, which they adapted to house their public restrooms. That was until Hurricane Ian destroyed the building.
HURRICANE IAN IMPACT
"We wanted to preserve that building," Cesario said. "Unfortunately Ian damaged that building and it now had to be taken down and now it has to be rebuilt."
And that rebuild is what's going to delay the opening of Fins Up Beach Club, one of the last to open as part of the resort's planned phased re-opening. However, with Ian washing away a piece of history from this community, Margaritaville is hoping to give something back. Right through the middle of the resort is a public beach access, and next to that? A public bar known as Lah-De-Dah Bar and Grill. Cesario said anyone coming off the beach can walk up to - no wristband or day pass needed.
"The resort is woven into the community. Fully accessible. That was so important to us," Cesario said. "Our owner is a resident and it was always important to him that this happened."
Above Lah-De-Dah Bar and Grill, construction crews inside were putting the finishing touches on the JWB Grill, one of the higher-end restaurants also open to the public which will be housed on the second floor - per new building codes in place before Hurricane Ian hit. Built at 18 feet, Cesario said the water never made it inside, just barely below the level they were required to build.
"The water came in right below, it hit the ceiling beneath us," Cesario said. "Somebody knew what they were doing, that's my reaction. That code they designed to be 'x' amount was pretty accurate."
When Ian hit, the resort was in the phase of construction where though the buildings were standing, they were just made up of concrete and steel - the damage more minimal compared to other resorts on Estero Island.
The JWB Grill and Lah-De-Dah Bar two of 6 different food and beverage establishments Margaritaville plans to open, it's why they now need to hire more people than originally expected.
ECONOMIC HOPE...STILL STANDS
Cesario said before the resort opens back up, they will need to hire 350 people just for the restaurants and bars - jobs back to the island as so many were wiped away with Ian.
"The jobs are coming back," Cesario said. "First we need the visitors to come to Fort Myers beach, then we are going to be able to employ these people with a great company and a great brand. Our job is going to keep the hotel full and that's not going to be difficult because we are such a beautiful property. We are definitely part of the future of the revitalization of bringing people back to Fort Myers Beach."
Cesario believes the story of Margaritaville is shifting and the sentiment has changed within the community. Over the last decade, there has been controversy and fear the resort will disrupt the small-town Florida feel. However, now with Margaritaville still standing and still donning the iconic pastel Fort Myers Beach colors, Cesario said that's changed.
"Now more than ever, Margaritaville is part of the future of Fort Myers Beach," Cesario said. "Everyone is looking forward to the opening and getting visitors back down here, hiring people to get down here, it's a big first step. I feel like it was meant to be here."
DOES MARGARITAVILLE PLAN TO EXPAND?
But Fox 4 wanted to know just how much of 'here' on Estero Island Margaritaville wants to own. According to Lee County Property Appraiser's public records, its owner TPI-FMB, LLC already owns 10 properties on Fort Myers Beach. Including its latest purchase just in January of 2023, buying what was the Silver Sands resort, decimated in Hurricane Ian.
"We just acquired it in January," Cesario said. "It's right across the street from the resort and it provides opportunities for us in that regard, but we haven't had any structured conversation and I don't have direction on that.
Fox 4 Anchor Nadeen Yanes asked Cesario: Does Margaritaville have plans to acquire any more land and expand even more?
"None that I'm aware of," he said. "We are going to have our hands full for what we have."
Starting in August, Cesario said Margaritaville will begin posting jobs and will open bookings for guests.
As for their new timeline, Cesario said the plan is to begin opening the resort and all the main buildings by mid-November. The goal then is to have the pool area, Fins Up Beach Club open no more than 45 days after that. With a final goal to be open in January. Just in time for the season.
"Absolutely a sign of hope," Cesario added. "I think people realize how important it is now to get the hotel open and it's a symbol of the fact Fort Myers Beach is going to reopen and hopefully grow to the point where it was before."