Wrecking Ball Hits Fort Myers Beach: Can the Town Turn the Page

by Richard Luthmann

Fort Myers Beach must move forward after Hurricane Ian. The storm devastated the island’s commercial sector, and the local economy will remain collapsed without significant changes. Many businesses are gone, and local regulations are not helping. Allegations of preferential treatment for certain developers make the situation worse. While most face hefty fines and violations, a few seem to get special treatment.

Commercial businesses must return to the island. The traffic isn’t just due to contractors; residents must leave the island multiple times daily for basic needs like groceries, restaurants, and medical services. Without an independent economic base, tourism suffers. Why would tourists spend money on a half-built, half-wrecked ghost town?

Recent actions have also driven away potential investors. Arches Bayfront could have transformed FMB into a unique Southwest Florida destination, but it was killed. Developer Jesse Schmid wanted to settle $1.25 million in fines, but the Town Council demanded $250,000 despite Schmid having a letter stating he owed nothing. The Council’s stance signals that FMB is unfriendly to business unless you are an insider.

Mom-and-pop rentals are stagnant due to the 50% rule. The Schmid case hints at an impending budget crisis for FMB. What investor would risk money in such an unstable environment? Commercial businesses have not been welcomed back to the beach. Santini Plaza still looks like a war zone. What is FMB Town leadership doing, and what will residents and business owners do about it? If nothing changes, FMB will never recover, becoming another Mexico Beach – devoid of commerce and character.

The re-emergence of Times Square symbolizes the community’s resilience. However, South End commercial outlets are equally crucial for the seasonal and tourist populations and economic activity. Rebuilding is an opportunity to reimagine FMB as a top tourist destination. Collaboration between the town, developers, and local businesses is essential to ensure redevelopment benefits the entire community.

Sustainable and inclusive development strategies must be embraced, creating accessible spaces and supporting local artisans and entrepreneurs. A transparent and inclusive development process is vital. This is our moment to turn the page and chart a prosperous and inclusive future for FMB and Lee County.

Schmid vs. Town Council: A Lawsuit Looms

Developer Jesse Schmid is ready to sue FMB over $1.25 million in fines. He accuses the town of using fines as a “Fort Myers Beach Exit Tax” to raise revenue. Schmid insists he owes nothing and claims the fines are baseless. “I’ve dealt with this for years. I am tired of dealing with it,” Schmid said. “I’ve had it with the last administration. I’m done with this administration.”

Schmid threatens to expose corruption within FMB’s governance. He claims former Town Manager Roger Hernstadt “operated like a thug, changing deal terms to his benefit.” Schmid has a letter from FMB Development dated November 18, 2020, stating, “There are no active Code Enforcement cases on this property (80 Avenue E).” This contradicts the fines and supports Schmid’s claim.

Vice Mayor Jim Atterholt questioned why the issue wasn’t resolved two and a half years ago. “To the Mayor’s point, I don’t know why we’re now just handling this. But to Mr. Schmid’s point, he did try to resolve this two and a half years ago because I was trying to act as a liaison to that, and that was challenging,” Atterholt said.

The Council’s decision to levy an additional $250,000 fine outraged Schmid, who claims FMB will be liable to him for “millions” for “slander of title and credit” if the matter goes to court.

Schmid believes the Council is making a mistake, warning, “If they want to try me, they will run smack into a wrecking ball.”

Turning the Page: A Call for Fairness

January’s settlement of developer Terry Persaud’s dispute with the Town Council marked a chance for FMB to move forward. Persaud’s case highlighted issues of favoritism and uneven regulation enforcement. The town must treat all businesses fairly, especially as it rebuilds after Hurricane Ian. But little has been done to move the ball downfield in months.

Supporting small businesses is crucial for FMB’s economic recovery. Equal treatment will attract tourism dollars and foster a vibrant, inclusive community. Persaud’s resolution can still serve as a springboard for positive change. The town must balance interests and commit to transparent governance.

Rebuilding Times Square, the Pier, Santini Plaza, and other vital tourist and commercial centers should be a collaborative effort between the town, developers, and local businesses. Sustainable and inclusive development strategies will ensure FMB remains a top tourist destination. This is our moment to turn the page and create a prosperous future for FMB and Lee County.

Will FMB Leadership Seize the Opportunity?

FMB’s future depends on its leadership’s ability to adapt and support the community’s economic needs. Past and current disputes, like those involving Schmid and Persaud, should guide forward-looking actions. The town must embrace fairness and transparency in its dealings with all businesses. Failure to do so will mean the end of FMB’s economic viability. The island can only thrive if its leaders make the right choices now.