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Fort Myers hopes spring baseball brings sunnier times

Participants in the Boston Red Sox's Fantasy Camp participate in a cleanup of the Bunche Beach Preserve with the All Hands and Hearts organization.Rich Fahey

FORT MYERS — There has been precious little sunshine in this corner of the Sunshine State in recent months.

Hurricane Ian stormed into Southwest Florida on Sept. 28 of last year, killing, as of Jan. 22, 71 people in Lee County and 148 people statewide. Ian also caused $112.9 billion in damages across the state, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and was one of only four Category 4 hurricanes in history to make landfall in the United States.

Lee County residents are hopeful that when Major League spring training baseball — a Florida ritual that dates back more than a century — begins this month, it will provide a needed boost to the local economy and put smiles back on the faces of both fans and residents.


Much of Southwest Florida — and especially the barrier islands and Fort Myers Beach in Lee County, which were devastated — is still in full recovery mode.

But there will be baseball, and Lee County — the spring home of two Major League teams, the Red Sox and the Minnesota Twins — is hoping that, for the first time since 2019, it goes off without a hitch.

Participants in the Red Sox annual Fantasy Camp play a game at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers on Tuesday, Jan. 17. The stadium suffered minor damage from Hurricane Ian but the damage has been repaired and it is ready to go for spring training.Rich Fahey

In 2020, the pandemic shuttered spring training sites on March 13. In 2021, the pandemic caused teams to sharply limit attendance at spring training games. And in 2022, the lockout delayed the opening of spring training until March 17, with teams playing a truncated schedule.

There is a lot at stake.

A study that looked at the 2018 spring training season showed that visitors spent almost $69 million, with $12.1 million inside the park and another $56.7 million on accommodations, food and beverage, and shopping. Lee County collected $66 million in so called “bed taxes” in fiscal year 2022, which ended last Sept. 30. In the quarter that began on Oct. 1, just after Ian hit, and ended on Dec. 31, the county collected just $2 million.


JetBlue Park, the Red Sox spring training home, and the surrounding complex in Fort Myers was largely spared by Ian, and the team is scheduled to begin its Grapefruit League schedule with a game against Northeastern University on Feb. 24. Some wall pads along the Green Monster were blown off, and some trees, signs, and fences were knocked down, but all repairs have been completed.

A mid-January visit to the park during the Red Sox’s annual Fantasy Camp found both JetBlue and the six fields behind the stadium good to go and the campers enjoying both the baseball and the sunshine.

The Minnesota Twins play 5½ miles west of JetBlue at Hammond Stadium in the Lee County Sports Complex. Hammond sustained some damage from Ian but is also ready for fans, who often attend games at both parks depending on the day’s schedule.

Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, the spring training home of the Minnesota Twins just a few miles down the road from the Red Sox's JetBlue Park, was damaged by Hurricane Ian but is ready to go for spring training.Rich Fahey

“Hammond Stadium and the Lee County Sports Complex are completely operational and functioning as normal,” said Mark Weber, the Twins’ director of Florida Business Operations. “We cannot wait to welcome our players, staff, and — most importantly — our fans to Fort Myers for spring training, and look forward to Twins baseball playing a role in the continued recovery of the region.”

Both the Red Sox and Twins have been heavily involved in relief and rebuilding efforts since Ian devastated the area. On Dec. 6, the teams announced jointly their respective charitable foundations would be making $100,000 donations to five nonprofit groups from the area.


Red Sox president and CEO Sam Kennedy noted that Lee County has been the Sox spring training home since 1993 and that the team has “built a strong bond with countless fans, local officials, and partners in the area.” He vowed the two teams “will continue to do all that we can to support our community as we continue to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Ian.”

Red Sox fantasy campers also pitched in recently, participating in a cleanup of the Bunche Beach Preserve on San Carlos Bay with the All Hands and Hearts organization.

Brian Hamman, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce, said the area is delighted to welcome baseball fans.

Beach goers walk past a pile of Hurricane Ian debris on Jan. 25 in Fort Myers Beach, Fla. Joe Raedle/Getty

“About two-thirds of the area hotels — including many of those frequented by Red Sox fans — are up and running,” said Hamman. “Many of the restaurants they’re familiar with are also open.”

He said fans coming down for spring can expect to find higher prices for accommodations. “It’s a simple matter of supply and demand,” he said. “There are fewer places to stay.”

He also said that this is not the year for a beach vacation in Lee County. “2024 will be great for a beach vacation, but not this year,” he said.

Every public beach operated by Lee County remains closed because of damage from the hurricane. “There are no restrooms, no amenities, no parking,” Hamman said.


The website visitfortmyers.com is continuously updated with hotels, restaurants, and attractions that are open.

The restoration of beaches has already begun. On Jan. 18, Governor Ron DeSantis announced $100 million for beach nourishment programs in 16 coastal counties in addition to $20 million awarded last November. Lee County will receive about $23.1 million from the latest round, and neighboring Collier County, which was also hit hard, will receive about $2.43 million.

The city of Fort Myers Beach, an annual hotspot for spring breakers and tourists alike, was devastated by Ian. The beaches are technically open and there are a few parking lots available, but a midnight to 6 a.m. curfew remains in place.

In a brief conversation with the owner of two destroyed properties in the city, he described the area as “a war zone.” He also said any chance of welcoming back tourists is “years away.”

The popular Lover’s Key State Park in nearby Bonita Springs remains closed. The causeway to hard-hit Sanibel Island reopened to all vehicles on Jan. 2, and the island began selling parking permits to two beaches to residents and property owners in late January, with plans to sell permits to visitors in February.

Collier County is another popular spot for fans of spring training baseball, and it also took a hard hit from storm surges created by Hurricane Ian, with one neighborhood near the water in Naples recording a 12-foot surge and Marco Island recording a 7½-foot surge, causing damage to homes and businesses.


There remains limited beach access in much of the county because of hurricane debris and water quality issues. For the latest in beach conditions, visit www.colliercountyfl.gov/our-county/visitors/tourism.

Hamman of the Greater Fort Myers Chamber said there is still much to be done but there are hopeful signs. “If you drive about 10 minutes inland from the beaches and barrier islands, life in Lee County is largely back to normal.”

The very fact baseball is being played brings a sense of normalcy and lifts the spirits of the community, Hamman added. “It’s a point of pride and gives us hope for the future.”