PUNTA GORDA — Bruce Laishley leaned forward and patted his general manager on the back seconds after hearing Smugglers had received the bid for a proposed a multi-use event center on airport property.
The Charlotte County Airport Authority voted 3-2 — with Kathleen Coppola and Robert Hancik dissenting — Thursday to negotiate a proposed lease agreement for $14,922 a month with Smugglers Event Management, co-owned by Laishley.
The board heard proposals from Jerry Cleffi, general manager of Smugglers, and Jason Marra of MotoBros. Both said they would hold family events in the space. They also wanted an area for RV storage.
Cleffi said the space was not a “concert venue” but would have concerts and much more, including car, boat and trade shows, festivals, private parties, bounce house activities, and corporate events. The proposal includes more than $500,000 in repairs. There would be containers used as a box office. Some of the elements from the existing speedway will be “repurposed,” Cleffi said.
Kelly Evans, vice president of marketing for Smugglers Event Management, said the parent company has had roots in the area for 40 years. For 15 years, Smugglers held a redfish tournament. They’ve donated to Habitat for Humanity, Center for Abuse and Rape Emergencies and the Boys & Girls Clubs.
“We built Lashley Crab House in Punta Gorda,” she said. “Our roots are here. We donate about $300,000 annually to the area.”
Evans said the city marketplace in Punta Gorda is slated for new development, so they can’t do a multi-use center there anymore.
“We believe we have the best use of the (airport) property,” she told the authority members.
In his proposal, Marra of MotoBros said he would keep the existing speedway and hire its employees as a part of the transition. He would add motocross race tracks for children and family events. He showed the board a $5 million facility in Okeechobee that he saved from development.
The contract with the speedway’s current occupants, 4-17 Southern Speedway, is ending. The authority was told federal regulations prevent it from renting the property for less than fair-market value to non-aviation businesses, which the speedway owners could not afford.
Immediately after hearing the proposals, Airport Authority member Vanessa Oliver made a motion to award the bid to Smugglers.
She and other members said Bruce Laishley, owner of Smugglers’ Lashley’s Crab House, does a lot for the community, including the July 4th fireworks. She said she liked Laishley’s “long history and commitment” to the community.
Coppola said both proposals were worthy, however, she liked the MotoBros idea because it was something to do for families. Several people sent in public comment supporting the MotoBros proposal.
“I have a 6-year-old grandson who would love being out there on that track,” she said, adding there’s room for both proposals. “I am a fan of the speedway.”
Hancik said he liked that the old speedway would remain in the MotoBros proposal. He said he listened to the public comments about how the operators also contributed to the community and provided family fun for the region.
The board said while the bid was offered to Smugglers, if it falls through, MotoBros would be notified. They also said there is additional space at the airport campus that might be a good fit for their proposal. However, Marra declined, saying the speedway property is ideal to retrofit for motocross racing.
Airport staff and Smugglers has 90 days to create an agreement. It will be brought back to the board for final approval. Smugglers may come back and ask for additional acreage for parking.
Coppola said she was concerned with the number of people she saw in the photographic example of a concert at the proposed venue. She wanted to know if the road could handle the traffic and if there’s enough parking. The board was told more answers were coming in the proposed lease agreement.
After the meeting, Laishley said he remembers when the speedway was a fairground. He said it’s going to be a lot of work revamping the speedway, but looks forward to it.
In other business, members learned the airport’s flight patterns are returning to their 2021 positions.
There was $13,000 donated to seven airport employees most impacted by Hurricane Ian.
October operations were down, namely because airport operations were shut down for a week after the storm.
During the meeting, five-year employee Amelia Mendoza was honored for her work as a custodian at the airport. Her boss, Beth Pardel, said Mendoza always smiles and is dedicated to her job.