Artists carve a neighborhood niche south of Colonial
There’s SoHo in Manhattan, SoMa in San Francisco … and Fort Myers has SoCo. Climbing aboard the branding strategy of previously neglected U.S. neighborhoods rich in culture, the SoCo Cultural District launched in October 2016. It is the brainchild of artist David Acevedo and offers a collaborative experience in the arts in an area of Fort Myers just south of Colonial Boulevard—thus, SoCo. Featuring cultural venues and businesses in Royal Palm Square (anchored by the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre) and Lee County Alliance for the Arts’ campus just to the south, SoCo happenings are scheduled from 6-10 p.m. on the second Saturday of each month.
Roughly 4 miles from Fort Myers’ River District and its monthly ArtWalk, the SoCo community’s focus is on the arts. Ironically, Acevedo was the catalyst for creating ArtWalk in what was then a struggling downtown area where he opened his first art gallery. “My business partner and I thought it would be so cool to have a gallery night once a month,” Acevedo says, so they convinced downtown galleries and artists to get on board and introduced the first ArtWalk in October 2008. Over the years, ArtWalk has become an entertainment staple for folks to stroll, eat and drink, people-watch and experience art in the River District.
In April 2016 Acevedo opened DAAS CO-OP, an artists’ cooperative, in Royal Palm Square just a stone’s throw from the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre on Colonial Boulevard in Fort Myers. “Opening night, we had a ridiculous number of people—more than 500. It was huge. People were so excited to see something new,” Acevedo says. He soon reclaimed his vision of a monthly art-focused happening, inviting his fellow tenants and the nearby Alliance for the Arts to join in creating a celebration of the arts south of Colonial. Will Prather, executive producer and owner of the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre, was on board immediately, lending to the new endeavor the theater’s leadership in the arts community.
Royal Palm tenants jumped at the opportunity to showcase their businesses just by opening their doors one Saturday evening a month. A Swedish Affair, Yoga Bird, Suzanne’s Dance Fitness, Catch 22 Live Music and Sports Bar, and other Royal Palm Square organizations signed on.
Lydia Black, executive director of the Alliance for the Arts, and Bill Taylor, artistic director of Theatre Conspiracy, the
Alliance’s resident performing arts company, also embraced the program, and in October 2016 the first of SoCo’s monthly evening celebrations came to be.
Acevedo also invited independent artisans and craftspeople to participate, adding another dimension to the event. From October to May, they line the Royal Palm walkways displaying their wares: drawings, hand-woven baskets, jewelry, stuffed animals, soaps, snacks, sachets and other hand-crafted goods. “Whatever they earn is theirs,” Acevedo notes.
Art exhibits at the Alliance for the Arts, a short distance from Royal Palm Square, are open on SoCo nights. That’s also where Theatre Conspiracy presents 10-minute plays at 6:30 and 7:30 p.m., perfect for keeping the momentum of art experiences flowing. As weather permits, the short plays may move to an outdoor platform stage, Taylor says. Across the campus, the Union Artist Studios and OcasioCasa Studio are open to the public for SoCo celebrations, as is the Southwest Florida Historical Society, also on the Alliance grounds.
“We thought it was a brilliant idea for bringing together theater, dance and galleries,” says Melissa Vogt, marketing director of the Broadway Palm, which is now in its 25th season. “There’s more to the arts than downtown Fort Myers, and this is a more family-friendly area,” she adds.
The Broadway Palm opens its doors to the public on SoCo evenings, including the theater’s art exhibit (provided and hung by DAAS CO-OP), bar and air-conditioned lobby seating. The final touch is the Broadway Palm’s after-party at 10 p.m., when guests are invited to the bar to take in a cabaret performance by cast members and enjoy complimentary hors d’oeuvres.
“SoCo brings another artistic and cultural option to the people of Southwest Florida,” Acevedo says. “Everything we do involves other artists. It’s something you can’t do on your own. We want this place to grow artistically and culturally—for people to come out and have a good time. Just by being here, you are supporting the arts. That’s how we see it.”
DAAS CO- OP in Royal Palm Square is a leader in promoting SoCo as an arts center.
Kathy Grey is a Southwest Florida writer and a frequent contributor to TOTI Media.
SoCo is an area south of Colonial with Royal Palm Square at its center, anchored by Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre ( top right) and Lee County Alliance for the Arts ( bottom left). Megan Burkhead performs at DAAS CO- OP ( bottom right), and SoCo vendors sell their creations ( middle right).