[Photo: Amber Frederiksen]
Amid a sprawling Lee County economy built mostly around the traditional Florida cornerstones of retirees and tourism, Fort Myers serves as a business, social and governmental hub. Just as the real estate boom turned bust, the riverfront city completed the first phase of an ambitious and extensive downtown revitalization project. Renovated historic buildings house hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, apartments and artistic venues, including the successful Florida Repertory Theatre and the Sidney and Berne Davis Arts Center. Plans to add a riverfront hotel and convention center to the mix are proceeding slowly but are still active.
Major economic assets in Lee County include Florida Gulf Coast University, the state’s youngest; the world-class Southwest Florida International Airport, one of the nation’s 50 busiest, and the 9,000-employee Lee County Memorial Health System. The tourism industry has continued to add capacity, with a 263-unit resort, Marina Village, opening last year in Cape Coral, the county’s largest city. The county has an agreement to build a new spring training facility for the Boston Red Sox that will keep the team training in the area.
The county has established a $25-million performance-based incentive program designed to encourage business growth. In July, county commissioners approved $1 million for Source Interlink to expand locally. A new Southwest Florida MicroEnterprise Project, a partnership of five organizations, formed to provide training and loans to local startup business owners of low to moderate incomes. In September, the Fort Myers Regional Partnership and 14 local banks developed a small-business joint venture initiative to help promote lending to local businesses and increase economic activity.
Fort Myers and Lee County face plenty of challenges, however. More than a third of the population is older than 55. Countywide, there are notable entrepreneurial ventures like Algenol Biofuels and 21st Century Oncology, but such firms are few. Regional cooperation with Naples is problematic. Fort Myers’ roughly 65,000 residents are generally younger, poorer and less educated than the county’s overall population. Cape Coral, which grew to twice the size of Fort Myers, lacks both large employers and a true downtown.
Fort Myers seems likely to remain the county’s center of economic gravity, a role it can fulfill if it can attract — or generate — more company headquarters and jobs that capitalize on the area’s livability and affordability while helping to shift the economic balance, even if slightly, away from its traditional reliance on tourism and retiree subdivisions.
|A Community Portrait of Fort Myers