EconSouth (Third Quarter 2005)

GRASSROOTS

City of Palms Living Up to
Edison’s Enthusiasm

Photo courtesy of Edison & Ford Winter Estates
The neighboring winter estates of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford are preserved in Fort Myers. Edison demonstrated the area’s first electrical light in his lab there in 1887.

Located on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River, Fort Myers, Fla.—the City of Palms—promotes itself as a gateway to the Gulf of Mexico. Despite suffering hurricane damage in 2004, this growing community in southwest Florida appears to be on economically firm footing today, like so much of Florida, with just 3 percent unemployment, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Fort Myers is the county seat of Lee County, which in 2004 was the 59th-fastest-growing county in the United States. To make the most of this growth, the city’s leaders have undertaken ambitious plans for development and redevelopment.

From fort to fishing to four irons
Originally inhabited by Calusa Indians, the Fort Myers area was explored by Ponce de Leon in 1513 and 1521. The original settlement was a federal fort built to protect the new settlers during the Seminole Indian wars. By the 1800s the area had gained prominence as a fishing mecca for wealthy guests who flocked to Gulf waters, especially in the winter months. They fished for a rich menu of kingfish, channel bass, sea trout, Spanish mackerel, and silver king tarpon.

Wealth followed wealth to this part of Florida when Thomas Edison, cruising Florida’s west coast in 1885, was captivated by Fort Myers and decided to build a home and laboratory there. Edison’s friend Henry Ford, the auto magnate, shared Edison’s enthusiasm for the area and eventually built a home next door.

These homes still stand today, attracting more than 325,000 tourists each year to the historic Edison and Ford Winter Estates. Preserved on the estates is Edison’s original rubber lab, which he named the Seminole Lodge. Edison and others who followed him planted royal palms along what is now McGregor Boulevard, which today is lined with more than 2,000 of the trees.

Fort Myers, Fla.  
Population: 51,028 (city only)
Households: 19,885
Median Household Income: $37,287
 
 
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

During the 1920s, a land boom in Florida—coupled with the completion of the Tamiami Trail, running from Tampa through Fort Myers to Miami—caused rapid residential growth. Since the end of World War II, growth in the Fort Myers area has continually pushed out from the center of the city to create new communities focused on golf and beaches, including North Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Lehigh, Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel and Captiva Islands, Pine Island, and Bonita Springs.

Rebounding and redeveloping
After an economic downturn in the 1970s and deterioration, particularly in downtown Fort Myers, restoration efforts in the area began in earnest at the start of the 21st century. As part of the Southwest Florida Enterprise Center, Fort Myers is redeveloping its downtown, changing not only how it looks but how it is being used.

According to Donald Paiglet, executive director of the Downtown Redevelopment Agency, over 3,200 new high-rise condominium units—with prices ranging from $350,000 to over $1.5 million—have been approved for the downtown Fort Myers waterfront; 90 percent of the units that have come on the market have been sold.

In 2003 Fort Myers adopted a redevelopment plan to address the economic viability of the city. The comprehensive plan, created by international architect and planner Andreas Duany, notes that while Fort Myers lacks the coastal beaches and upscale demographics of neighboring Naples and Sanibel, the downtown area does boast a waterfront and a walkable main street, albeit with 40 percent of the land owned by the city itself.

To succeed at redevelopment, according to Duany’s plan, the city needs to attract developers and merchants by offering long-term ground leases and thus improve the city’s business climate. Data on commercial permits from the Southwest Florida Enterprise Center show that new businesses are already beginning to locate downtown. Florida-based Publix has agreed to open a 40,000-square-foot grocery store downtown, and WCI Communities Inc. is planning a mixed-use waterfront project, said Paiglet.

Facts about Fort Myers
  • The Fort Myers–Cape Coral MSA has a population of 487,000, according to the U.S. Census 2003 estimate.
  • Seventy-eight percent of the area’s population drive to work alone instead of carpooling or using mass transit
  • The tropical botanical garden at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates is one of the most complete in America, featuring more than 1,000 varieties of plants from around the world.

High marks for quality of life
Fort Myers is a residential powerhouse helping to fuel the economic engine of southwest Florida. New residential units are going up around the city, and existing residential areas are being rejuvenated. In its most recent quarterly survey of 149 U.S. metro areas, the National Association of Realtors found that single-home prices in the Cape Coral/Fort Myers area posted the second-highest gain over the preceding year, rising 45 percent to a median price of $266,800.

Fort Myers consistently ranks high on the “best places to live” lists of a number of major publications because of year-round good weather, low crime rates, and generally affordable housing along with acres of golf courses and waterfront properties. The area is also becoming a major melting pot, according to the Fort Myers News-Press, which notes that “specialized social groups for Hispanics, Germans, Asians, and specific nationalities are popping up around the region.”

Driving forces for a thriving economy
In terms of employment, the Milken Institute’s report “Best performing cities: Where American jobs are created and sustained” ranked the Fort Myers–Cape Coral metropolitan area number one nationally in 2004. This ranking bests neighboring Naples, which was 17th. The Milken index is based on a range of components including job growth, wage and salary growth, entrepreneurial capacity, and a high technology quotient.

The local economy is buoyed not only by tourism and residential growth but also by large employers. Florida Gulf Coast University (located within two miles of Interstate 75, the region’s major north-south roadway) provides significant employment to the area and plays a major role in training the local workforce. A 19-acre Florida Gulf Coast Technology and Research Park under development near the university will offer office space and research facilities for high-tech companies and research firms as well as classrooms for students. The development is a public-private partnership of the university, Lee County, and Alanda, Ltd.

Another employer with significant impact on the local economy is Southwest Florida International Airport, where a new Midfield Terminal Complex will open in 2005. The $438 million project includes a 798,000-square-foot terminal, a new taxiway, and a parking garage.

This article was written by Lynne Anservitz, editorial director of EconSouth.

 

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