NAACP and businesses file an ethics complaint against city leaders over lease extensions

Reporter: Breana Ross Writer: Melissa Montoya
Published: Updated:
Lee County’s NAACP is filing a complaint against the city of Fort Myers for conspiring to evict businesses out of the Southwest Florida Enterprise Center. (CREDIT: WINK News)

The NAACP of Lee County has filed an ethics complaint against the city of Fort Myers and its Community Redevelopment Agency.

The complaint, dated March 25, alleges city council members, who sit as commissioners for the Community Redevelopment Agency, “secretly conspired” to kick tenants out of the Southwest Florida Enterprise Center on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Five businesses in total were evicted.

The complaint states the minutes of a Dec. 2 Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) meeting do not match what transpired at the actual meeting.

According to the complaint, Councilman Fred Burson, who sits as chairperson of the Community Redevelopment Agency, told SWFL Enterprise Center Director Michael Love to bring back the leases for a 2-year extension.

The February agenda did not include an announcement that the CRA was terminating the leases, the complaint states.

“We were led to believe that everything was as it ended on December 2,” said James Muwakkil, president of the Lee County NAACP. “Then on Feb. 17 we get backstabbed, doublecrossed, and blindsided by the CRA commissioners.”

Muwakkil said the NAACP has had its offices in the building for 12 years, but in the fall of last year, the city told him their lease expired and would go month-to-month

“You make a decision in the broad daylight, in the public. We leave here thinking that,” Muwakkil said. “We go about our day, scheduling now our business to the community based on our locations and then you come back a few months later without any regard to us, without any regard to our stability, to our finances, to our service, to our customs, you come back and then you say we are going to terminate your lease. But you don’t invite us there. You don’t tell us this.”

The Southwest Florida Enterprise Center is meant to be a business incubator where start-ups can grow their business for four years and move on, but back in December, Muwakkil and other tenants say the city told them they could extend their leases because of circumstances with the pandemic.

Luis Echavarria now has to find a new home for his welding company.

“It was hard of course all year and now we try to go back and now we have to move from here,” said Echavarria, owner of K&C  Welding & Ornamental.

He has to leave by the end of the month even though Echavarria thought the city of Fort Myers would extend his lease after the December meeting.

“Well I think attorney Edwards is going to be working on that extension for you and you’ll be there,” Burson told him at the time, referring to CRA Attorney Berk Edwards.

“What I would direct you to do is to get those leases to Attorney Edwards. He will review them, update them, and at some point in the future bring them back and we will approve as written by Mr. Edwards,” Burson said at the time.

And then in February, the extension was back up for discussion where Edwards pointed out that some of the businesses owed back rent.

In his complaint, Muwakkil said the city met behind closed doors about terminating the leases, a violation of Florida’s Sunshine Laws.

“It would be totally different if there were white businesses here,” Muwakkil said. “It would be totally different.”

Burson denies Muwakkil’s charges and said the decision came down to Edwards’ advice and the fact that the Southwest Florida Enterprise Center Director, Mike Love, said there was a waiting list for the business spaces.

“Mr. Love said he had other tenants available on the waiting list and so that’s what the commission decided to do was to terminate those leases that had already expired,” Burson said.

In December, Love told the CRA he had a waiting list of two businesses.

“Echavarria said he didn’t owe any outstanding rent or fees. He says he feels betrayed.

“Well don’t say ‘yes, I’m going to give it to you’ and then put a sign that you have to leave,” Echavarria said. “That’s not good. That’s not good at all.”

Meanwhile, Muwakkil said he is not aware of a waiting list, but he said he would withdraw his complaint if the CRA lets the businesses stay.

Burson said that won’t happen and he looks forward to defending the CRA and the city against the complaint.

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