PUNTA GORDA — The future looks bright for the Bayfront Center and Punta Gorda Boat Club buildings at Gilchrist Park.
While no official decisions have been made, the city could be leaning toward renovating the two buildings, built in the mid-1960s, rather than tearing them down to build a new facility.
“The main reasons (for renovation) is that the buildings are currently being used extensively by the community,” said City Council Member Jaha Cummings, representative of the Historic District, part of which neighbors the park at 400 W. Retta Esplanade.
“In particular, a large number of seniors for whom this is their main place for regular socializing,” Cummings said. “To force them to leave, to build a new facility, would deny them a very important and needed social gathering place.”
The Gilchrist Activity Center Feasibility Report
Uncertain of how to proceed with the buildings, the City Council asked Dover Kohl & Partners, the consulting firm behind the Citywide Master Plan, to conduct a feasibility report.
In March 2019, Dover Kohl presented four design concepts for the sites at an open house meeting to gain insight from the public, the majority of whom preferred the city “renovate the buildings and preserve the ‘Old Florida’ feel,” according to the firm’s Aug. 28 report.
In the report, Dover Kohl also found that increased operating costs would cause a new facility to lose money, stating that future operations would not generate enough funds to support the costs of building a new facility.
Instead, the report listed an alternative option to renovate the buildings.
“I think Dover Kohl is offering good advice on the (Gilchrist Park) Activity Center plans and other matters related to Gilchrist Park and I hope the city, after due consideration, follows that advice,” said Sheila Jaeger, who lives near the park in the Historic District.
It was also noted in the report that the city should maintain the park’s current green space.
“Adding parking in addition to what is needed to accommodate usage by the Boat Club and Bayfront would be eliminating the very green space that makes the park so special,” Cummings said.
This is not the first time the future of the buildings has come into question over the years.
In 2018, a waterfront restaurant and activity center was proposed by Punta Gorda native and developer Chris Evans, of local restaurants The Blue Turtle Tavern & Raw Bar, and F.M. Don’s, among others, to replace the two buildings.
“I do not see a path forward for a waterfront restaurant on that property,” Evans said. “Based on the meetings and conversations I’ve had with the public, they do not want a commercial operation on that property.”
Evens added that anything he would consider would need support of the Historic District Homeowners Association and support from stakeholders such as The Boat Club, YMCA, the sailing club, and others.
“With it being public property, public interest has to be served (before anything can be done),” Evans said.
Currently there are no proposals for the area at Gilchrist by anyone, according to Cummings.
“(A restaurant) is very unlikely,” Cummings said.
Questions still remain for the future of the buildings, as the Dover Kohl Aug. 28 report is only a draft.
“The City Council has yet to discuss any long-term plans for that property,” said Melissa Reichert, city spokesperson. “City staff won’t have an answer or direction on this until council members have the opportunity to discuss it.”