West Marion Avenue sat deserted this spring as residents sheltered indoors.

Meanwhile, what looked like a skeletal barn went up, without fanfare, on the northeast corner of West Marion Avenue and Sullivan Street in Punta Gorda, across the avenue from Leroy’s Southern Kitchen & Bar.When Punta Gordans finally noticed it, their fertile imaginations went to town.

Social media speculation about the structure’s future ranged from cattle-drive reenactments to a martini bar with a double-wide perched on its roof. Some grumbled that a barn violated City Center development regulations.

Vice Mayor and District 4 Councilmember Lynne Matthews soon set things straight.

“It has been one of the more quiet projects that just sort of happened,” she said, adding that because it didn’t require City Council approval, they hadn’t heard much about it.

“It complied with our land development regulations, and the zoning of the property allowed this project. It did receive DRC (Development Review Committee) and permit approval.

“The City Center zoning district requires a two-story building and there is a zero-foot setback; therefore, buildings can be built to the property line.

“The intent is to have ... food trucks on the perimeter, with a permanent bar and bathroom structure in the interior, and a second floor for storage, office, etc. The structure will have a metal roof (permitted by code); however, the columns will be wrapped and the permanent siding material will be ... lap siding which is an approved material.”

Its future sounds much more interesting.

A global pandemic might not seem the best of times for a major restaurant launch. The principals didn’t know there’d be one when they started. But their vision was wildly prescient of what could be Florida restaurants’ new normal.

Partner and local entrepreneur Amanda Shaffer Mardis said, “It’s an open-air concept that allows you to dine outdoors — a huge attraction now — with all the amenities of indoor dining. It won’t be what you might picture as a food truck court. There won’t be rows of picnic tables, for instance.”

“Harbor Social is our baby,” she continued. “Andrew and I came up with the idea on our honeymoon in the Bahamas, where we were inspired by different ideas that fit together like puzzle pieces.”

They scouted out Celebration Park — Naples’ outdoor waterfront bar and food truck court — then came up with something completely different, a concept to fill a gap in the already eclectic Marion Avenue restaurant row.

All the couple needed to make their vision reality were the right partners in construction and the restaurant business.

“We have an amazing team, a perfect mix,” said Amanda. “We took the idea to our longtime friend, local businessman/restaurateur Bruce Laishley. The three of us were born and raised here. He loved the concept, and the location became available a little over a year ago.”

Next, they joined forces with Heather and Jimmy Paquette, president/owner of Suncoast Builders of Southwest Florida, responsible for, among other iconic local projects, Laishley Crab House.

Only five years ago, any vision of food trucks coexisting happily with Punta Gorda restaurants would have violated city ordinances.

But today the Harbor Social experience — “fine dining meets New Age food truck” — is perfectly legit.

“Looking at it now, you can’t even fathom what the end result’s going to look like,” Amanda added.

She describes Harbor Social as having a coastal contemporary vibe — more wharfside than barnlike.

The 3,520-square-foot interior will hold a 40-seat full-liquor bar and 150-seat fine dining area.

They plan portable air movers and a high, vaulted ceiling for free air circulation even during summer heat.

On the building’s east side will be a permanent mobile kitchen serving a fixed, chef-driven menu.

The west side of the property allocates spots for a rotating slate of food trucks, under an awning where diners may order food and remain under cover. They’ll have additional outside dining, games and live entertainment.

“Even if you don’t have dinner at Harbor Social,” Amanda said, “it’s a social place where you can come for coffee, dessert or drinks with your friends while strolling Marion Avenue.”

Harbor Social is expected to open at 212 W. Marion Ave. in September or October 2020, in time to welcome locals before season starts.

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