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Cesar Aguilera, left, and Brian Weaver opened Artsemble Underground in the Bell Tower Shops. (Photo: Andrew West/The News-Press Part of the USA Today Network, The News-Press)
Disruptions to retail shopping that began long before anybody had heard of COVID-19, combined with the global pandemic itself, prompted the Bell Tower Shops to reinvent itself.
The reinvention began with a remodeling to the walking paths between the outdoor mall’s shops, which was completed December 2019, just as coronavirus began to spread around the world from its origin in Wuhan, China.
Which means far fewer people than during normal times have seen the revamped Fort Myers shopping center at the northeast corner of U.S. 41 and Daniels Parkway.
With the virus vaccine rollout continuing, the shopping center has a new look, some new tenants and fresh hopes to re-emerge as a destination for those who have tired of eating, shopping and working from home.
The Bell Tower Shops has undergone a major renovation in the last year. (Photo: Andrew West/The News-Press Part of the USA Today Network, The News-Press)
“It’s an 18-hour, lifestyle destination,” said Julie Clark, marketing manager for the Bell Tower Shops. She envisions patrons looking to spend that much time there, from breakfast and coffee to lunch and dinner to getting nails done and shopping for groceries at Fresh Market or playing video games at Dave & Buster’s in between.
Three new tenants typify some of the changes being made at Bell Tower.
Artsemble Underground opens
Artists Cesar Aguilera and Brian Weaver each took different paths to embracing their inner artists. Those paths have converged with the opening of the new Artsemble Underground.
The art gallery will be open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and other nights as well depending on the shopping center’s events schedule. The space used to be Jos. A. Bank, a suit store.
Aguilera, 41, grew up in Ecuador and moved to Naples at the age of 19.
“I was going to pursue art school,” Aguilera said. “I ended up staying in Naples. I didn’t go to art school. I started learning on my own. I thought that was the best thing for me to do. I learned from different artists. All self-taught.
“In Ecuador, I had gone to school for environmental engineering. Part of what I want to do with art is solve the problems that we’re having in society. It wasn’t until I moved to the United States that I realized the power art had for everybody.”
Weaver, born in Panama and became a vagabond of sorts as a young adult after attending an arts school in Raleigh, North Carolina.
“I did a lot of traveling,” Weaver said. “I was kind of a gypsy, I guess.”
Weaver arrived to Cape Coral about eight years ago. He looked for a local artist think tank, a place for him to connect with other aspiring artists. When he couldn’t find one, he started one himself. He put on art shows, first at the Dolphin Key Resort, then to 47th Street Terrace.
Weaver went on to create and display art at Epicenter Warehouse, located off U.S. 41 near Page Field, which was where Weaver and Aguilera began brainstorming what has become Artsemble Underground.
“Our big thing was ‘Battle of the Arts,’ where all of the local artists would come together and start to battle,” Weaver said.
The pandemic prompted the two artists to rethink their ideas, as they were used to painting in front of large crowds, sometimes up to 8,000 people.
“We believe art can fix anything,” said Weaver, whose forte is painting murals. Some of these murals are on the sides of walls outside of businesses along Cape Coral Parkway and downtown Fort Myers.
“We believe art can mean more businesses and more jobs.”
Aguilera and Weaver hope patrons will find becoming artists attainable, accessible and not intimidating.
“It’s super exiting,” Aguilera said. “I just like that reaction of people to create art as if they were children. When you were a kid you’d just paint. Anybody can be creative.”
“If you can imagine it,” Weaver said, “we can create it.”
More: COVID one year later: Pandemic rocked Southwest Florida’s economy, but some businesses boomed
Stogie Pairing prepares to light up
Vidal Rivera, born in Puerto Rico and raised in Chicago, has been in Southwest Florida for about 15 years now, working in the fire protection business.
Rivera’s business oversaw the installation of sprinkler systems for businesses and warehouses.
Now, instead of putting out fires, Rivera will be lighting them up to smoke cigars at his new cigar bar, Stogie Pairing Cigar Lounge.
The concept: pairing different blends of cigars with different wines and craft beer. Coffee will be on the menu as well.
Stogie Pairing, slated to open in late March, will be on the outside of the Bell Tower, between Ulta and Burntwood Tavern. The space in the past has been a barbecue restaurant and a burger restaurant among other incarnations.
“Oh man,” Rivera said. “I’m stoked. The coolest thing is I’ve called several different cigar vendors. The idea and concept is so different. There’s nothing like this in the area. I know it’s going to take off.
“I love cigars. I kept saying this was the perfect location for it. I wanted to do something more than being in sales for a company. I wanted to do something for myself. It was history in the making.”
Stogie Pairing will separate its cigars by blend: flavor infused, mild, milt-to-medium, medium-to-full and full.
“They will be in humidifier cabinets,” he said. “Five feet wide and seven feet tall. They’ll be full of cigars. Most separate by brand or manufacturer. We’re separating ours by blend. We will have 20-to-25 different varieties per blend.”
Patrons will be able to create their own pairings or order from a selection on their phones.
“I love breweries,” Rivera said. “I love craft beers and trying different flavors. But I could never smoke a cigar when I go to those places.
I got my wife involved. When the opportunity came about, I came home, and I said, ‘I have this idea.’”
The upgrades to the Bell Tower were a big reason to place his new business there.
“I love the way it looks now,” Rivera said. “The flow of things. It’s a beautiful mall. I’m located centrally. This was the best spot for me. We’re pairing up with some of the restaurants locally. Hopefully I can integrate it to where you can order food and bring it here.”
Cigars have a niche clientele, Rivera said, but that niche keeps expanding.
“It’s actually rising,” he said. “Yearly, it’s been growing, I think, 4.2% every year. As a whole, cigars are rising it’s a $900 million industry. It’s a huge industry with small market. It’s a niche. And it is getting more popular with the younger crowd.”
More: In the Know: New face mask factory in Fort Myers set to expand, awaits FDA approval
The former Lone Star steakhouse building on S. Cleveland Ave. across the street from the Bell Tower Shops, in Fort Myers has been vacant for 11 years. Fort Myers News-Press
Symphony finds home
The Southwest Florida Symphony has a new home to themselves, having moved into the Bell Tower in January, taking over space formerly held by Chico’s.
“We’re very grateful to have a partnership with the Bell Tower,” said Amy Ginsberg, executive director of the symphony, which has 70 members. “We take care of each other. The conversations with the Bell Tower started three years ago.”
Already, members of the symphony have performed concerts in the shopping center’s courtyard.
The new home sure beats going in and out of the Riverside Community Center, a beautiful facility, Ginsberg said, but one her organization had to share with a myriad of other groups. At the Bell Tower, the symphony has about 4,500 square feet of space all to itself.
The symphony is exploring the possibility of hosting a summer camp there.
Its first concert since February 2020 is slated for April 17 at Barbara Mann Performing Arts Hall. It will be a Beethoven vs. Coldplay, a mishmash of songs by the classical composer and the modern rock band.
Being able to have a permanent home to practice should enhance the performances.
“Now, we finally have a home,” Ginsberg said.
The symphony isn’t the only non-profit to have set up shop in the Bell Tower Shops.
United Way also has an office there. The Lee County Sheriff Office has a substation there, too.
Fleet Feet, a running shoes specialty store, recently moved from 1,000 square feet of space to more than doubling that in the spot that used to be Brookstone.
As retail shopping trends continue to change, the Bell Tower has adapted by making changes along with them.
Connect with this reporter: David Dorsey (Facebook), @DavidADorsey (Twitter).
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