High-end developers are targeting Florida's interior as land prices escalate along the state's edges.
MOVING IN: Mitch Hutchcraft became a regular at Flora and Ella's Restaurant in LaBelle, often using the landmark as a base while overseeing Bonita Bay Grouup's expansiion into Hendry County.
In a back room at the Greater LaBelle Chamber of Commerce, Mitch Hutchcraft unrolls architectural renderings to reveal the Bonita Bay Group's plans for a 24-acre parcel along the banks of the Caloosahatchee River in LaBelle. He points to spots for a family restaurant, office space and possibly a small bed and breakfast.
The yet-unnamed community also will feature attached housing, says Hutchcraft, a regional vice president spearheading Bonita Bay Group's expansion into Hendry County. "I'm envisioning something like Charleston or a Georgetown type of neighborhood. Probably gated."
The community leaders listening to the pitch have plenty of questions about how the changes will impact the small town 25 miles east of Fort Myers on State Road 80. What will happen, for instance, to the house that once belonged to their neighbor Lois Barron? That familiar LaBelle landmark sits on land Bonita Bay Group acquired in January for $2.75 million. Others worry that once gates go up, longtime LaBelle residents may no longer be able to bike and walk their dogs along the river. Everyone wants to know whether the swanky new housing going up along the river will be affordable for the typical LaBelle resident.
A decade ago, the sleepy 4,000-population farm town wouldn't have been even a second thought for an upscale developer like Bonita Bay Group. But escalating land prices are forcing development to the center of the state. In western Hendry County alone, by conservative counts, plans exist for more than 3,500 homes in 11 subdivisions, according to the local economic development council.