FORT MYERS — Nineteen years ago, City of Palms Park first opened its gates to Red Sox fans across Fort Myers and beyond as the home of Red Sox spring training.
Friday, the doors closed to one of the team’s final remnants at the park.
The Red Sox Team Store received a rush of customers throughout its final day at the stadium, with fans piling in to take advantage of the savings during a last big sale of Red Sox gear. With prices cut between 30 percent and 80 percent, people stocked up on hats, shorts, jackets and jerseys — all while sharing stories of spring trainings of days past.
Set to reopen in 2012 at the Red Sox’s new spring training site, JetBlue Park at 11581 Daniels Parkway, the team store is a staple for fans who want to purchase their Sox gear during spring training games.
For retail manager Doreen Arsenault, the new stadium means more space for her shop verses the two large tents Arsenault and her team would set up during games at City of Palms. But after working 17 years at City of Palms Park, nostalgia’s making the move a bittersweet one for Arsenault.
“I’m a little sad because I’ve been here for so long,” she said. “It’s a great stadium.”
It was a common statement made at the store, as longtime fans came in from the morning storms to grab a discounted jersey and spend time at the park before it loses its recognizable Red Sox stamp. The future of the stadium is still unclear, leaving many to wonder what will become of City of Palms Park once the Red Sox return to Lee County in 2012.
“The saddest thing would be to see the stadium sitting vacant,” Arsenault said.
While the possibility of turning City of Palms into a national swim center is under consideration by Lee County commissioners, many at the store have hopes that it will be used for its original purpose: a ballpark.
Lee commissioners stated during their April 12 meeting, however, that they don’t have the money to maintain the park for events, such as amateur baseball, which are never going to pay their way, Commissioner Frank Mann said.
It takes a little more than $1 million to maintain and operate City of Palms Park, and as it stands, the national swim center project wouldn’t need tax dollars for the renovation. A decision is expected to be made by Lee commissioners in May.
Despite the financial hurdle, the idea of another baseball team coming into Fort Myers would be ideal for lifelong Red Sox fan Steve Chaplic.
“It’s meant to be a ballpark. It’s not meant to be anything else,” said Chaplic, 56, of Lehigh Acres. “It’d be great to see another Major League Baseball team here.”
Taking one last peek at the stadium, Shawn Senior and his family walked out to the field from the store, his children running down to take a look at the inside of the stadium where their father used to play.
It had been nearly 15 years since he last saw the City of Palms, during his years as a minor league pitcher in the Red Sox organization.
“Nothing much has changed,” he said. “I was a lot younger, but it was fun and always a great crowd.”
As a heavy rain began to fall, cashier Deb Plain looked out the window toward the empty halls of the stadium and sighed.
“Seems appropriate it’s raining,” she commented. “It is bittersweet, but I do look forward to the new stadium. There will be more seats, and with more seats, it means more opportunities for people to see baseball.”