Downtown Fort Myers is a few square blocks of restored hope.
And it's partly because of smart and aggressive people like Rene Miville. The Captiva businessman has just opened the Miville Gallery, an edgy and engaging space on the second floor of his Franklin Shops retail cooperative on First Street in the River District. The Franklin building anchors one end of the downtown. Miville purchased the historic corner building in 2003. It's evolution was slow, but the Franklin Shops have caught fire. The Miville Gallery has added an ingredient of vitality that only art and art patrons provide, he said.
The River District, he said, "has made a major turn. It's much healthier. Too many of us now have skin in the game."
Captiva businessman Rene Miville
On the surface, Miville has everything, a wonderful family, not one but two Captiva homes, loads of talent and lots of good fortune, a chronology as an international fashion photographer. His photo art is described as innovative, forward-thinking. His work is in galleries and private collections. It's also a centerpiece of his new gallery in Fort Myers.
At 60, Miville still strikes an impressive pose, tall and rangy with an impossible head of mostly dark hair, although he limped recently on an ankle injured in a misjudged jump over something.
Yet his life didn't start in Oz, he said. He came from a New England family of lesser means, struggled to find direction, until one day picking up a camera in his 20s. He ended up in fashion, photographing the world's most beautiful people and situations. He had a studio in Lower Manhattan, another in Europe. He was ringed by the wealthy, beautiful and famous.
"Sounds good," he said at the Fort Myers gallery between cell phone calls and the ceaseless energy he conveys, "but it was kind of shallow. This life is much more fulfilling, more interesting."
Miville (said Ma-ville) is not alone in the efforts to restore downtown Fort Myers. There's a general sense of arousal, a feeling that the River District is waking up like Van Winkle, with new businesses popping up, established merchants stretching out, building, planning, bringing outsiders to the game. A dozen new restaurants, cafes and clubs are open, with the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center anchoring the east end of town in a formerly vacant postal building. The Davis Center features a popular series for amateur filmmakers.
Monthly art and music events, other galleries, a new and striking Lee County library branch, street bricking, a popular monster party, new living quarters, each contribute a slice to the restoration of a city that was in steep decline.
But Miville was at the forefront of the revival, purchasing the Franklin Shops building in 2003, a couple of years before the national economy tanked. The store has become a beacon, attracting shoppers and the curious looking for fun.
Today the retail shop is an upbeat mixture of some 60 cooperative merchants anchored by such artists as Leoma Lovegrove, the Pine Island impressionist. Miville calls his building an incubator, with dozens of others selling art, accessories, gewgaws, fun things that make life pop. On a recent Friday the Franklin Shops were jammed, in fact, the entire street was booming with festive visitors eating and shopping, enjoying the weather and the music. A hum of energy hung over the entire downtown like a fog. There was a DJ in the Miville Gallery, visitors posing with a couple of large men dressed in women's attire pitching something. The place is reflective of Miville's insistent spark.
"This," Miville said of his latest venture, "is a real gallery, like the galleries in New York. It's a great opportunity for the artists, for downtown."
Art and galleries and public appreciation for the arts are critical to any tourism economy, experts agree. A national impact survey of southwest Florida pegged the overall economic effect of Lee County's art industry at about $70 million in revenue, meaning cash spent each year on services and goods, jobs and events.
"Art people fill hotel rooms, give (you) an educational component that helps bring synergy to southwest Florida," said Judie Zimomra, Sanibel's city manager. "And downtown (Fort Myers) has the rooftops, the balconies. Just that aspect is priceless."
Lee Ellen Harder, executive director of the BIG ARTS cultural complex in Sanibel, said the work of leaders like Miville is vital.
"What would a community be without the arts," she said. "It's living history, the mark we leave behind. And it's the reason why so many people say they move to southwest Florida."