Should The Town Be Capping Licenses?

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Riding a jet ski or taking a parasail ride are as much a part of Fort Myers Beach as waiting in traffic to get over the bridge. In fact when you come over the Matanzas Pass Bridge it’s common to see the parasailers high in the sky as you take in that spectacular view.

The Jet Ski and Parasail business has come a long way since before Fort Myers Beach incorporated back in the mid-90’s. There was a time there were no rules. People were towing machines to Fort Myers Beach from everywhere. Bill Perry, one of the early Jet Ski operators on Fort Myers Beach, says around 1990 there were at least 30 operators and hundreds of machines on the water. They would make the journey during the busy months, plop down their flags, and leave town when the tourists went home. Safety meant nothing, it was all about the money. Machines were colliding, people were getting injured, even killed.

First Lee County caught wind of the situation, and with the help of local operators started crafting rules. Eventually the town incorporated and took what the county created, made some tweaks, and adopted an ordinance that has been on the books ever since.

Chapter 27, as it has become known, includes regulations that cover safety, insurance, a business license, the number of vehicles an operation is allowed to have on the beach, and how to properly fuel vehicles, among other very specific regulations. They must also be at least 500 feet apart from one another, unless they were operating before the ordinance went into effect, which grandfathered them in where they were.

The ordinance also put a cap on the number of licenses the town would issue; 11 personal watercraft licenses and 7 for parasailing. And, all the vendors must work out a lease agreement with a property owner on the beach to be their home base of operations. The town charges $170 for an annual license. Of course, operating the business costs much more; the machines, the insurance, the fuel, the employees, etc.

Over the years, a community of vendors has developed that the town regulars and town council have come to know and appreciate.

So what’s the fuss been about lately?

Vendor chairs piled up in front of the Margaritaville construction on 3/23/2022

According to several current and former town council members, it was always understood by both parties, that TPI would be able to operate its own Jet Ski/Parasail business behind its new resort. TPI owned the Pier View Inn before the construction on the new resort began. During that time, one of the vendors was operating in that spot and continues to do so today, during construction. TPI took over the lease agreement the vendor signed with the previous owner of the Pier View. That lease expires at the end of this year.

TPI has been working with the vendor to meet the standards the company expects to go side-by-side with a $200 million resort. They have been unable to work out a deal. According to the town ordinance, these licenses can be sold or transferred. TPI attempted to buy the license, however, they say, the asking price amounted to extortion. If they cannot work out a deal, that vendor can simply move on down the beach and find another location.

That brings us back to the cap.

The town council is looking at the ordinance to try and find a way that will allow TPI, or any new hotel that develops, the option to “self-perform,” and not be beholden to the vendors who hold the limited number of licenses available. Councilman Jim Atterholt says the agreement made with TPI during the negotiations years ago needs to be kept. “TPI is transforming this island. They have been working with the town in every way. This is about the long-term. It’s a one-off unique negotiation and the vendors should acknowledge that.”

Atterholt brings up the vendors because they are opposed to lifting the license cap. And, they made those feelings clear this week at the Local Planning Agency meeting. They believe TPI either needs to make a deal with a current vendor to operate on TPI’s property or buy one of their licenses. They say TPI needs to follow the rules in chapter 27 and there is nothing in writing otherwise.

Both TPI and the town now say the language that ultimately went in front of the LPA and Town Council in the public hearings in 2017 and 2018 sufficiently addressed the situation. This language was never a point of contention nor discussion once the application advanced to LPA and Town Council back then. Their focus was really on bigger issues such as density, height of buildings, the size of the restaurant, and property contributions to the town that TPI was making. The language as approved says that TPI can operate its beach vendor operations if it is permitted by Chapter 27 of the Land Development Code.

And, that is the snafu.

Licenses will most likely never become available. The small group that owns them now will continue to own them. Perhaps they might sell one to an employee, which actually happened this month for a reported $3 million. The town allows the licenses to be transfered or sold without getting involved.

Councilman Bill Veach suggested that the town council lift the cap by one to allow TPI to get its license, and if one goes dormant or isn’t renewed, drop the cap back down. That may be a route the council goes.

Atterholt said the council has every right to change the ordinance, which was backed up by town attorney John Herin this week. Herin also said the town council could decide to ban the practice altogether if they decided to. As a government entity they have that power.

We will also be discussing this topic on our show Saturday morning.

 

 

8 COMMENTS

  1. I am not in agreement to lift a cap for TPI and the resort. All of these vendors have spent years developing their brand and what they do. They work hard to maintain their business. Something can always be worked out. But to just change the rules is like saying we only care about the big guy. Which does seem the case.

  2. Food For Thought, regardless of the issue of TPI having a LICENSE or not, do you think it would make sense for……………TPI as the property owner, that already has the rights for both parasail and jet ski operations on its beach, but not the license, to be able to interview existing beach vendor operators and negotiate and select whom we feel would be best aligned with the resort?

    September 2017, upon myself asking if permitting (licensing) was an issue, the important representation from Town staff and consultants was, NO it wasn’t and has never been an issue. This is what TPI thought it achieved back in 2017/2018, but found out last summer, it can’t because all the licenses have been speculatively gobbled up. TPI tried VERY hard to work with Paradise Parasail and Adventure Watersports to up their game. We tried hard in 2015 and 2016 right up to April of 2017, and was met with defiance.

    Given these unanticipated circumstances, we can’t do it without an existing beach vendor, willing to sever a likely long-standing relationship with another property owner/resort, and then move their license to our property. TPI’s beach vendor location currently, and further enhanced by the future resort, is the highest user demand location on the island. Do you think if we used that leverage/advantage and in essence caused a beach vendor to walk away from a long-standing relationship, you could feel good about that? Here in lies the quandary. Unfortunately, and NOT what we want, nor what we think is in FMB’s best interest, is for us to disallow beach vendor operations on our beach avoiding being represented in a manner that is simply unacceptable. Do you feel we should be held hostage to this circumstance that NO ONE in the past 25 years anticipated would happen?

    Maybe this helps to understand the dynamics and compounded situation at hand. TPI does not want license proliferation, we simply want a fair process and the best operator(s) in front of the future resort, we are guilty of this! We take seriously out commitment as a corporate citizen in our small island community and appreciate the public’s attention, comments and passion on this subject. We want nothing more than for our reputation to be one that contributes way more than it takes. Unfortunately, we are guilty, up to this point, of trying to avoid giving all this background color to the subject. Simply finding ourselves in a situation of being extorted is just not acceptable. There exist great beach vendors out there and we feel they are the ones that should be awarded with this opportunity.

  3. Such a unique and convoluted issue. The current ordinance is clear and there’s no doubt that adding an extra license requires an exception to the current code. In a perfect world there’s no question that the opinions stated by Seamus, Jim Hockett (on BTR) and others is undeniably valid and likely spot-on correct. However, none of us know exactly what transpired in the past regarding assurances from past councils nor specific negotiations between TPI and the parasail business owner that’s operating on TPI’s property. It’s evident that a previous town council assured TPI that a license was forthcoming; since that is an undeniable truth the current council has an obligation to fulfill that promise. Unfortunately this is not a perfect world and none of us know the whole truth nor the specifics regarding what actually transpired, only the business owner and TPI know the entire and accurate truth. Has there been an earnest attempt to work out a sale for the license? Was the purchase price reasonable according to the current market? Was there a discussion regarding a reasonable profit sharing agreement that allowed the current license owner to continue operating there? If so was there a reasonable request from TPI to upgrade the beach stand to align with the aesthetics of the resort? Working out a deal seems to be the best option and the smoothest solution but something has gone sideways — and none of us know for sure what was discussed, what was asked nor what was offered. Therefore our opinions are just that — opinions. Being a fence walker is not my style but speaking for myself I haven’t a clue about what’s right and wrong or how to fix it. It’s certainly a mess.

  4. The Town Council would do well to take a step back and rethink their position on lifting the cap by one license simply to accommodate TPI & Margaritaville.

    Yes, TPI has been a generous and cooperative partner in the development of Margaritaville. Their concessions and donation of valuable land is something that will live on forever. But to change an ordinance to give them the opportunity to engage in a line of business for which this Town already has enough, smacks. . . of. . . well. . .something inappropriate. A “pay to play” scenario comes to mind immediately. And the optics on an agreement like that are horrible at best, and dangerous at worst. Because it sets a precedent that the Town and the Council may not ever overcome. If you lift it for one, you should consider lifting it for all.

    Which raises the larger point: why can’t ANY of the current license-holders and Margaritaville reach some sort of agreement? Much like liquor licenses in Lee County, there are only X available. And if there are any for sale, then simple economics drive the cost for that license. If TPI doesn’t want to pay that much for a PWC license, then it’s time to negotiate with a current vendor. I wouldn’t dare to presume how to come to that agreement, but how about splitting the revenue (as a starting point only?) If I held a license and had access to a steady, daily supply of customers as I would have from people walking out of Margaritaville to the beach, and possibly with the endorsement of the resort, I’d be all over that. If I were the resort, and I could sell more rooms based on an exclusive agreement with the PWC/Parasail vendor (i.e. Margaritaville guests have priority. . .or better yet. . . wait for it. . . Margaritaville guests can make RESERVATIONS for their PWC rental/parasail rides!) how is that not a benefit of staying at the resort?

    Imagine a resort guest who could go online and make a reservation for a PWC rental or a parasail ride. That would seem at least a nominal competitive advantage for both parties. Sure beats waiting in line for the “first come, first served” boats/rides like the other suckers!! Just spitballin’ here.

    The bottom line is that the license-holders and Margaritaville need to come to an agreement on their own. And the Town Council should stay out of the way and let this situation resolve itself. They’ve come to you to settle an argument you can’t possibly win. Stay in your lane, Town Council. Arbitration is not in your wheelhouse.

  5. Wow live on the beach for over 25 years and when I wanted to add a garage the town wouldn’t allow it to touch my existing building. Now I see the same thing all over the Island. Guess I’m not worthy to have exceptions like TPI. I think my service at the fire department isn’t as community oriented as TPI. Keep making exceptions for your businesses. The Island will become all rentals. We are almost there.

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