Florida Rep buys Arcade Theatre, ‘Bradford block’ for $15 million in downtown Fort MyersJune 26, 2019
David Dorsey, Fort Myers News-PressPublished 11:38 a.m. ET June 26, 2019
One of the most storied pieces of property in downtown Fort Myers sold this week for $15 million, changing hands from the legacy of a pioneering city business leader to an ensemble cast of characters who have been tenants for 21 years.
The Florida Repertory Theatre bought the “Bradford block,” every building in the rectangle bordering Bay and First streets to the north and south and Jackson and Hendry streets to the east and west, from Bill Smith LLC.
The deal closed Monday, less than the original asking price of $19.9 million.
The properties include the historic Arcade Theatre, ArtStage Studio Theatre, other Florida Rep facilities and the parking lot across Bay Street, which borders the vacated Hall of 50 States building, which is still owned by the City of Fort Myers.
The Bradford Block was named for Tootie McGregor’s son, a condition she gave to original developer Harvie Heitman, who borrowed money from her to finance construction of the Bradford Hotel in the early 1900s. Heitman also built the city’s first brick building in 1898 on the same property. The hotel is long gone, but the property now also includes 20 commercial units and 42 residential units, 12 of which were rented by Florida Rep for visiting artists working at the theater.
The businesses on the block include an Iberia Bank on the southwest corner and a strip of shops in the middle, including Naples Soap and Arts for ACT. All will continue as tenants. Instead of writing checks to Bill Smith LLC, they will be paying Bradford Arcade Properties LLC, which will hire a property management company to oversee the tenants.
“The property, we had put it up for sale about three years ago and had a contract with North American Properties to buy it,” said Wilbur Smith, a retired Fort Myers attorney and former mayor of the city. Smith’s father, the late Bill Smith, purchased parts of the property for $55,200 and $215,100 in 1979 after founding the Fort Myers appliance and electronics company in 1954. Bill Smith died in 2011. Wilbur Smith is one of the co-owners of his father’s company and recently moved his law offices to the area of Fort Myers known as “Midtown,” anticipating both the sale of the Bradford Block and the redevelopment of land near City of Palms Park, former spring training home of the Boston Red Sox.
“They were going to develop a major retail, office and residential rental building,” Wilbur Smith said of North American Properties. “They backed out of the time frame because they thought the economy was not going to do well. While we were in the process of putting it back on the market, Florida Rep came along. We accepted.
“I’m happy that it’s gone into the hands of the Florida Rep, who will use the property more for a general-public purpose instead of it being a big, high-rise building. They don’t plan to do anything except improve the building. I think that’s a really, good thing for Fort Myers. It keeps art downtown, and it goes into the hands of people who are kind and gentle. A big building for a lot of people would have created a lot of business, but I think there are a lot of businesses downtown anyway.”
This week, the theater has been buzzing with activity as usual, as a summer camp class of about 20 children is rehearsing the play “Aladdin” on stage in the 393-seat theater.
The Florida Rep, a non-profit organization that relied on a flurry of anonymous donors to fund the real estate purchase, will continue to rely on donations for the upkeep of the property and paying its 32 year-round employees and 23 interns for this year.
“For the first time in our twenty-one year history, we will own the theater and the parking lot,” said Florida Rep Board Chairman Marc Laviolette. “It gives us the self-determination which we never had and the opportunity to apply for grant dollars that were unavailable because we didn’t own our facility.”
In gaining control of the 110,000-square foot parking lot with 187 spaces, the Florida Rep also ensured having parking for patrons, regardless of downtown’s growth around it.
“For most theater companies, this is a dream,” said Greg Longenhagen, who began his tenure with the Florida Rep as an actor in 1998. Now, he’s the artistic director. “We are a not-for-profit organization. We’ll still rely on the generosity of the public. We cannot survive on the ticket sales alone to do the type of outreach that we do, especially with our children’s programs.
“We reach about 37,000 school-aged children throughout the five-county area with different programs. We bring students into our theater. We have a conservatory program for the high school students. We participate in going to schools to do workshops. There’s a lot that we do just at that level. Of course, the theater itself, we reach almost 100,000 people over the course of a season.”
The donors stepping forward to fund the purchase secured the future for the theater, Longenhagen said.
“They saw this as an opportunity to preserve not only the history of the Bradford property but also to cement Florida Repertory Theatre’s legacy as part of the cultural fabric of downtown,” he said. “The Smith Family has always been a partner in Florida Rep’s success, and we are honored to take on the property and to honor their 40-year history as its owner.”
Matt Simmons, a Fort Myers property appraiser with Maxwell-Hendry-Simmons, performed in the Arcade Theatre as an Evangelical Christian School student in the late 1990s. He was thrilled with the transaction, one that remained below the radar until Monday.
“It’s really hard to keep a transaction of that size quiet,” Simmons said. “The last time this property was under contract, it was no secret at all. North American Properties was going to be the buyer. That was the worst-kept secret in town. This was kept really close to the vest. Even people who were in the know, no one knew this was coming.
“What I think is really important about this sale, is downtown is going through revitalization with a really strong presence of the arts. The fact that the Florida Rep is going to stay in place, and the iconic Arcade Theatre is going to stay, it’s really going to help keep a vibrant downtown. It’s such a unique, charming, authentic place. I think it’s just awesome for downtown Fort Myers.”