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Lee County reconsiders Bay Oaks Recreation Campus ownership

June 8, 2017
Jessica Salmond - News Editor ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Editor's Note: This story was first published June 8 and has been updated to include more information, which was published in the June 14 issue of the Observer.

Bay Oaks Recreational Campus is often referred to as the heart of the community. It's a hub of activity for residents and students alike.

Since 2009, it's been cared for by the Town of Fort Myers Beach after Lee County surrendered the campus to the town during the financial downturn. The county turned over ownership and management and just under $500,000 for upcoming repairs and washed its hands of the park.

But, county interest could be rekindling.

Lee County commissioners voted to direct staff into researching the potential of re-owning Bay Oaks Recreation Campus at their June 6 meeting.

The topic was brought up during commissioners items by District 3 County Commissioner Larry Kiker, who asked his fellow commissioners to have staff research whether or not Bay Oaks could become a regional facility once again.

Bay Oaks was owned and operated by the county until 2009, at which time the county turned over control and ownership to the Town of Fort Myers Beach largely due to budget constraints.

Kiker was the town mayor at the time.

"We were forced to take it. It was, you take it or we will shut it down," Kiker said. "If my numbers were correct, it was 30% of our budget going into the next year that we weren't expecting. It was almost disabling at that time."

The town has been running it since, and its meaty portion are often a topic during budget deliberations. In the 2016-2017 fiscal year, Bay Oaks' budget was $883,377. Kiker said he's always thought the way the county handed it to the town was inappropriate: at the time, it had been considered a regional park, and many of its patrons were not island residents, he said.

"I thought it was the wrong thing to do," Kiker said.

But recent circumstances have gotten the commissioner thinking about Bay Oaks again.

The Village of Estero also had a recreational center owned by the county when it incorporated. The village and the county had discussions about the campus, as the village expressed interest in managing it. Had an agreement been reached, the village would have purchased it from the county. However it never evolved from discussion.

Then, the news broke about the Hepburn cottage, donated to the county by Boca Grande, which is potentially moving to the county-owned Matanzas Pass Preserve land. Kiker's hope is that house can help Matanzas and the historic society become an educational center of regional interest.

Which drew his eye to Bay Oaks' past classification as a regional campus.

"In all respects this has become a regional situation," he said at Tuesday's meeting. "Let's have staff take a look at that situation and talk to the town and make a recommendation on what we should do with that facility."

His commissioners agreed - but also widened the scope. District 5 Commissioner Frank Mann said constituents in LeHigh Acres have expressed interest in the county setting up some kind of regional campus there. District 4 Commissioner Brian Hamman said the staff should look at other areas for regional and neighborhood facilities, too, especially in Cape Coral.

"Lets spread this motion to include a general review of neighborhood versus regional parks, and looking specifically at yours, and bring it back for a workshop," Mann said.

Hamman agreed, adding that focusing solely on Fort Myers Beach could create an "equity problem."

The commissioners approved unanimously for the county staff to pursue Kiker's idea, as well as other potential regional parks.

"For economic development, this board has spent a lot of money on bringing companies here. VR Labs - that didn't work," Kiker said, speaking of a failed economic incentive program. "How can we invest dollars into our communities and help them? And this (direction) is an example of what that might be."

Kiker's proposition was discussed at Thursday's Bay Oaks Recreational Campus Advisory Board meeting, but minutes are not yet available.

Mayor Dennis Boback said he thought the county taking the facility back over would be a win-win for everyone.

Boback is a supporter of Bay Oaks but has often been frustrated by the funding the facility pulls from the town budget. A lot of people who use the facilities come from around Lee County, and Boback thinks the county has more resources to dedicate to improving the campus.

"It's not that I don't like it, but I don't think the town can keep affording to spend the money on Bay Oaks every year," he said.

There is no formal proposal at this time. County staff has been directed to research possibilities and talk to town staff and bring them back to the county for consideration at a future workshop.

Town Manager Roger Hernstadt ran into county manager Roger Desjarlais at a county-wide hurricane and emergency management training on Thursday; Hernstadt said Desjarlais briefed him shortly on the topic and told him a county staffer would be reaching out soon to the town.

"That meeting has not been set, nothing happened, but it's an issue that has percolated to the surface," Hernstadt said.

The entire topic is in infancy stages. But Vice Mayor Tracey Gore and Hernstadt alerted the Bay Oaks Recreation Campus Advisory Board (BORCAB) to the county's discussion at Thursday's BORCAB meeting.

"Any agreement would have to be approved by the town and the county," Hernstadt said. "Our community has a say in the decision on who operates and manages."

He suggested that BORCAB being pondering two directions: one, what it takes for the town to continue to own and operate Bay Oaks, and two, if the preferred option were to send it back to the county, what assurances the town would want the county to commit to in the facility's continued local operation.

If the community wants to maintain the town's ownership and control over Bay Oaks, it needs to be sure the facility is getting the proper resources, Hernstadt said. Currently, Bay Oaks operates without a long-term capital improvement plan (CIP)- that is, there is not a list of upcoming large expense items being budgeted for each year.

"The capital plan has been driven by what broke that week," Hernstadt said. "I would prefer not to manage under that scenario. I would rather be looking forward, not be in crisis management."

Hernstadt tasked Parks Director Sean De Palma to develop a five year CIP, as well as projecting past five years for "big-ticket" expenses and repairs.

"At the end of the day, you have to admit certain things," Hernstadt said. "The county has certain resources they could bring to bear, they're a larger entity and we have to recognize that. With that comes a lack of control so you have balance competing ideas."

BORCAB Vice Chair Rae Sprole said the board was caught "off-guard" by the county's discussion, and is in a holding pattern to see if anything comes of Kiker's idea.

"We're all kind of unsure, a wait-and-see if the county wants to do it, if they can do it, or if the town wants it," she said. "It could be a positive, it could be a negative, but there's not enough known about it to get upset or not."

Should any discussion with the county move forward, Hernstadt was sure there would be ample time for community input and public meetings for feedback.

"Clearly it is an important community asset, and that should be our ultimate objective, how do we best protect that," he said.



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