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Urban planner talks Hancock Square’s future

September 16, 2015
By CHUCK BALLARO (news@breezenewspapers.com) , North Fort Myers Neighbor

The North Fort Myers Civic Association needs to continue dialogue with local politicians and with the owners of Hancock Bridge Square to determine a plan for refurbishment of a shopping center just north of the bridge on North Cleveland Avenue.

That was the suggestion from urban planner Greg Stuart, of Stuart & Associates, who was guest speaker at the civic association's monthly meeting Tuesday at the community center.

Stuart said the people who bought the plaza and its 33 acres saw something in it to make it worth the investment.

"They know what they're doing, but what? It's in a good location, but it's an obsolete, underperforming shell," Stuart said. "The area has a lack of purchasing power and a weak market."

Statistics bear that out. Stuart said that in 2015, North Fort Myers had about 48 percent of households that annually made under $35,000. While that number is expected to decline to 41 percent by 2020, it is far from the 33 percent Stuart said most municipalities find satisfactory.

Also, most residents are at or close to retirement age and therefore at or close to being on fixed incomes. This negates the positives, such as location and the 47,000 cars per day that pass by there.

This has contributed to the plaza, which was built in 1984, losing tenents. Stores currently include a Subway, a laundromat and a quilting shop. In recent years the anchor store, Office Max, left, as has the beauty academy.

The parking lot also needs to be upgraded..

There have been many ideas on how to improve the area.

Among them is a mixed-use marketplace with both pedestrian friendly businesses and residential use.

The big question has been who is willing to spend the millions it would take to make this vision come true.

Stuart suggested a plan for the civic association and other area business leaders to follow before developing an area revitalization plan.

The plan includes analyzing what could be done to help the area and communicate with lawmakers and business property owners and develop an economic analysis.

Also, have a dedicated focus through a long-term task force and through the Lee County Economic Development Office and identify a feasible, meaningful framework with the property owners and assess incentive programs to get investors to come.

Civic association president Michael Land asked "How do we revitalize when we can't fill the strip malls? There's too much footage in too small a market."

Stuart said it will take time, years at least, before people will begin to notice positive change.

"There are lots of pluses, but you need to work on them. You're on the right track, but there are so many challenges and opposition," Stuart said.

Stuart said residents need to speak to their elected officials, most notably Lee County Commissioner Brian Hamman, to make sure there's funding for studies relating to special programs.

It is also important to speak with the owners of the plaza, of which there are five, to find out what they plan to do with it.

"Talk to them. What do you guys want? What would it take for you to reinvest in this area?" Stuart said. "They could be looking to lease some of it out, sell in five years and get a 20 or so percent rate of return. Or do they unlock the potential of it by knocking it down? There needs to be discussion."

 
 

 

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