North Fort Myers Neighbor Living special feature: North Fort Myers’ best days are still ahead
I remember the first time I rode a rollercoaster. I was nervous. We buckled in and headed out of the gate, and the ride was… slow. We didn’t shoot off like a rocket, in fact it started by slowly climbing a hill.
Click after click we made our way towards the top. Sure we were making progress, but it wasn’t nearly as exciting as I had hoped for while I was waiting in line. The higher we crept up the hill the more interesting it got, but I knew on the other side there would be some excitement.
Today, I feel very much the same way about economic development in North Fort Myers. I know there is an exciting opportunity out there for our community. While we have seen our situation change for the better over the last few years, it has not been as exciting as we all know it could be. At the local government level, much of the work we’ve done has been to lay the groundwork for the opportunities to come. But as Florida begins to reap the benefits of fast-paced growth, thanks to the way Gov. DeSantis and your county commissioners led us through the Covid-19 pandemic, I believe we are poised for progress.
Recent headlines report that 1,000 people move to Florida every day. Those new people are customers that will drive and support more commercial growth. Lee County’s Economic Development office reports more than 2,500 homes and nearly 2,300 multi-family units are in development for North Fort Myers. When they get here, they will need a place to live, jobs, restaurants, and other commercial services. Property owners and investors will meet those demands by opening new businesses and building new housing.
Lee County’s role in that process is to create the right environment for those businesses to open up and thrive. We do that a number of ways. The first is getting the land use right. We see a lot of vacant buildings in North Fort Myers because the market wasn’t able to support them. Allowing property owners to easily change the way they use their land is one of the first things we can do to help attract new businesses that the market will support. Take Merchant’s Crossing for example at the corner of U.S. 41 and Pine Island Road. Much of that plaza was empty, including the big box store on the north end of the plaza. We worked with the plaza owners to allow for a new mixed-use concept including apartments to be built, where the big box once stood. Today, that group has demolished the old building and is in permitting for the new apartments. They have also freshened up the rest of the plaza to add more curb appeal and visibility. They report that their tenants have seen increased business because drivers can see them from US 41.
Another example of new land use is Paradise Isle. The property owner plans to bring back the golf course, build housing, hotel rooms, restaurants, and spa facilities. The re-zoning is a major change for the community off Orange Grove Boulevard, but one that was embraced by the community because of its potential to serve as a catalyst for revitalization.
Nearby, Lee County is reviewing proposals to bring the marina back to Waterway Estates. The county owns property at the end of Inlet Drive that was once a marina and a restaurant. Commissioners gave the go ahead to solicit proposals for a marina to be built, like what was originally permitted for that site.
Hancock Square Plaza at U.S. 41 and Hancock Bridge Parkway is always the biggest project that people point to when talking about North Fort Myers. That plaza is clearly run down and has been holding the rest of the neighborhood hostage. Many nearby property owners have told me they see no need to fix up their property if Hancock Square is going to keep looking the way it does. I have reached the end of my patience with the owner of the property. Now is the time for him to fix up his property or sell it to someone who will.
I am working with our code enforcement to fine the property for every code violation that exists and at last check more than $40,000 in fines have been imposed. In recent weeks, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office and Human and Veteran’s Services have worked to re-house or relocate the homeless that were at this property.
Also, the right-of-way safety ordinance passed by commissioners this year has dramatically reduced the number of people stopping and standing in the intersections. One glimmer of positive news for this plaza, I recently met the property manager who was on site doing work. He says he has been hired to clean the place up and he had ambitious plans to do so. I hope 2021 is the year we see things begin to turn around at Hancock Square.
There are signs of hope all around our community. The pandemic set many projects back a year, but I believe we are in a better position to emerge from it than most communities in the United States. With new residents coming, a supportive local government and Florida’s strong economy, North Fort Myers’ best days are still ahead. NFMNL