Neal: Grieving old Fort Myers Beach while cheering on the new

FORT MYERS BEACH, FLA. – The first thing I noticed upon arrival for spring training was that those long, dark, hideous grapple trucks were nowhere to be seen.

Their omnipresence was a symbol one year ago of a devastated beach community. Dozens of them rolled by Hammond Stadium during Twins spring training games, going to and from Fort Myers Beach to collect and haul away debris caused by Hurricane Ian. By March of last year, more than 1.1 million cubic yards of debris and 215 tons of human hazardous waste had been removed from a 2.3 square mile area.

For Twins fans who regularly travel to the area during the winter months, hanging out on the beach was not an option. It was all about recovery.

On Wednesday, I met Fort Myers Beach Mayor Dan Allers at the Yucatan Beach Stand, a restaurant off of Old San Carlos Boulevard. An 8-foot-tall Tiki statue greets you upon arrival. That statue was found four miles away following Ian. It was returned, with some bruises, to its original spot.

While speaking with Allers, who is from Spring Lake Park, I looked out on the street and saw Twins fans walking around. That was something I didn't see a year ago when I drove up and down the beach with a heavy heart as I passed familiar places that no longer existed.

Fort Myers Beach has a long way to go after Ian slammed into the resort town on Sept. 28, 2022. But it has come a long way, too.

Spring break season is arriving, which normally draws upwards of 100,000 adventurous college students and families. This year, the beach is back open for business ... just not all the way back.

"We certainly see a few kids running around," Allers said. "But we're short so many hotel rooms that there might be a lot of them staying off the island and coming down to the beach. But I haven't seen a ton yet."

The beach has less than 50% of its normal hotel space available. Nearly half are at the new Margaritaville Resort, a 40,000-square-foot, 425-room development just south of the Matanzas Bridge, the main entry into town. Many local residents objected to the scope of the project, and adjustments were made during the planning stage. Now it's likely a symbol of the economic recovery the town hopes to experience.

The Yucatan Beach Stand is located north of the bridge, and it had a healthy number of people moving through the area on Wednesday. Many buildings have been renovated or are under renovation. But many sit in tatters for myriad reasons. Some owners can't afford to rebuild. Others are still waiting for insurance to kick in. Some have given up waiting on insurance and have moved on.

Things look worse south of the beach, except for Margaritaville and a few other resorts. Allers said 3,500 buildings were damaged by the hurricane, 1,900 destroyed. The Whale, a popular place for Minnesotans and Minnesota sportswriters, currently is a tent area over the dirt where a building once stood. But dozens of people sat at tables under that tent on Wednesday as music played.

And many Minnesotans are familiar with the Lani Kai, spring break central. The hotel suffered major damage but is rebuilding. Anyone who has been inside is hoping that the restrooms are seriously upgraded.

Allers said, in the last month, there have been several applications for new developments on the island. So the rebuild is ongoing and Twins fans still have an option if they want to spend a day by the Gulf of Mexico. An enormous amount of vegetation was ripped away by Ian, leaving views of the Gulf like never before.

On Thursday, I returned to the beach and grabbed breakfast at Bonita Bill's, a dog-friendly restaurant located right off the water by the bridge. The staff wore t-shirts that read, "No shirt? No shoes? Can I get you a beer?" It's among a few other restaurants, including the Dixie Fish Co., which made an annual appearance on my Fort Myers dining guide.

Breakfast was great. Boaters pulled up at the dock to grab tables. Live music began at 11 a.m. It was the Fort Myers Beach many are used to.

As a wave of redevelopment approaches, many wonder if places like Bonita Bill's will continue to exist. Locals are worried that corporations will move in and turn the town into South Beach West, but none have stepped forward yet.

"I think in five years, you are going to see that it will still be a fun eclectic place," Allers said. "It's just going to look a little different."

Forced into recovery. Now pulled toward progress. Fort Myers Beach eventually will be back. But it won't be the same.