Published: Feb 22, 2012 5:44 AM EST
Updated: Feb 22, 2012 6:20 AM EST

FORT MYERS, Fla. - After years of planning and debating, the City of Fort Myers voted Tuesday to move ahead with a major change to the downtown river district.

The city council approved a new downtown river basin on a six-to-nothing vote on Tuesday night.  It will bring the Caloosahatchee River up to Bay Street.

It took three years of planning, and a few cuts, to get this first phase approved, but the approval didn't come without some concerns.

"This project is going to finish off the last piece of the puzzle on the riverfront," said Mayor Randy Henderson.

The new $5 million riverfront basin is expected to be the cornerstone of a river district transformation, that supporters hope will draw hotels, restaurants and other businesses into a vibrant new river district.

But at least two council members wondered whether that money would be well spent.

"The timing may not be right for the budget restraints and all that we're going through," said council member Teresa Watkins Brown.

But other council members said the timing may never get better. They argued delaying the project could have cost the city a million dollars in grant funding, and construction would only get more expensive.

City leaders say they've already had discussions with ten hotel groups and several interested restaurants, possible partners that they didn't want to lose.

"Private businesses will lose their interest in Fort Myers if we don't proceed right now," said council member Tom Leonardo.

The mayor says the perks of the project are more than just economic. The new downtown basin also helps city solve longstanding water quality concerns.

"At the very core of it, its going to provide a responsible approach to managing our water, cleaning it up before it goes into the river," Henderson said. "This is a win-win."

The loss of parking spaces has been a major concern of citizens and businesses, but city officials say alternative parking areas will be set up in the boat ramp parking lot and other areas.

Work on the river basin should start in march, and the new riverfront could be ready by this fall.