[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
Who Lives Here
Downtown Fort Myers has been extensively renovated during the past few years.
[Photo: Natalie S. Dunham/FMRA]
» Fort Myers: 68,819 (up 35% since 2000)
» Lee County: 615,124, with slightly more than half in unincorporated areas
» Cape Coral: 162,852
» Bonita Springs: 46,425
» Fort Myers Beach: 6,919
» Sanibel: 6,329
• Key Demographics
» White, non-Hispanic: 41% in the city; 72.6% in the county
» African-American: 35% city; 8% county
» Hispanic: 17% city; 17.4% county
» Fort Myers’ residents are more than six years younger than the state median age, while residents of the county overall are about six years older. Compared with statewide averages, city and county residents are more likely to have been born in the U.S. Residents of the city are more likely to have dropped out of school and less likely to have a bachelor’s degree or higher. City residents are more likely to be lower income than the average Floridian, while county residents are less likely to live in poverty.
» Most new residents to Lee County move from nearby Collier, Miami-Dade and Broward. Residents of Fort Myers are more likely to have moved from another residence in the county in the past year.
» Lee County voters are largely Republican, with 153,653 registered as Republicans, 105,320 as Democrats, and 83,805 as other. The McCain/Palin ticket won the 2008 presidential election in Lee County, 54.7% to 44.3% for Obama/Biden.
Gulf Coast Medical Center, Lee Memorial Health System
» The cost of living in Fort Myers is below the U.S. average (86.9 vs. 100 for the U.S. average), with housing being cheaper and medical care more expensive.
» Median household income in the city is well below the state average: $40,305 vs. $47,778. Among county residents, median income is above the state average at $50,747.
» In 2009, Lee County launched a $25-million incentive program aimed at attracting businesses. The county awarded $1 million to Source Interlink, allowing the publishing, merchandizing and distribution company to transfer hundreds of its employees located elsewhere to the county. Paramount Transportation Logistics Services created 100 jobs in Fort Myers, enticed by the $300,000 it received from the fund when it moved its headquarters to the city.
» The median home value (including condos) in Fort Myers is $176,000 vs. $218,700 statewide.
21st Century Oncology has offices in 15 states.
» Lee Memorial Health System is the county’s largest employer, with more than 9,400 employees, including about 1,100 doctors. It operates five outpatient centers and six hospitals with more than 1,400 hospital beds. A regional cancer center opened in 2009. The health system also spun off a freestanding company, LeeSar, that procures and distributes a range of medical products for both the Lee Memorial system and Sarasota Memorial. Sales have jumped from $20 million eight years ago to more than $120 million.
» Hope HealthCare Services, run by CEO Samira Beckwith, is a multimillion-dollar healthcare organization based in Fort Myers that provides hospice and healthcare services to more than 2,000 people a day.
» 21st Century Oncology, a developer and operator of radiation therapy centers, has grown to 98 offices in 15 states and has helped develop innovative radiation therapies.
» Key to development of the region since it opened in 1983, Southwest Florida International Airport opened a new terminal in 2005 and handled more than 7.4 million passengers in 2009, making it one of the top 50 U.S. airports for passenger traffic. Twenty airlines provide service all over the U.S. and to Canada and Germany. With a free trade zone and room for expansion, the airport is seen as a key economic engine by regional economic developers. Also notable: A successful general aviation facility, Page Field, is home to more than 300 private aircraft and supports some 920 jobs.
Southwest Florida International Airport added a terminal five years ago.
» Along with coastal tourism on Sanibel and the beaches, the Caloosahatchee, which flows through the county, provides recreational opportunities. The winter homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford in Fort Myers continue to be big draws, along with Boston Red Sox’s and Twins’ spring training games. Tourism officials say Lee County attracts an affluent tourist with an average income of more than $100,000. South Seas, a resort and call center operator, is a major employer.
Fort Myers has been the spring-training home of the Boston Red Sox since 1993. The Minnesota Twins also hold spring training in Fort Myers.
» Florida Gulf Coast University, the state’s newest university, is staking out a position in promoting clean energy. The university has a 15-acre, $14-million solar power field that can generate up to 2 megawatts of electricity. It employs 500 faculty and has about 10,000 students. In addition, a number of other public and private schools operate in the area:
About 10,000 students attend Florida Gulf Coast University.
» Edison State College: 15,000 students and four campuses in the region
» Hodges University: 2,700
» Southwest Florida College: 1,771
» Nova Southeastern University: 722
» Barry University: 527
» Rasmussen College: 500
» ITT Technical Institute: 250-350
» Keiser University: 100
» The home building industry has been devastated by the real estate bust and continues to struggle. Some speculative building has resumed in pockets, however. Major home builders WCI and the Bonita Bay Group still have a big presence in both Lee and Collier counties. And the Shell Point Retirement Community, the largest Continuing Care Retirement Community in southwest Florida with almost 2,000 residents and more than 650 employees, plans to double its resident population within a decade.
Shell Point Retirement Community
» Tigris Pharmaceuticals — The Bonita Springs company is working with Jackson Laboratory, USF and other partners to grow biotech in the region.
» Fort Myers-based women’s apparel retailer Chico’s is ranked No. 33 on Florida Trend’s list of 150 biggest Florida-based public companies.
» LeeSar, a regional healthcare supply chain management company, is headquartered in Lehigh Acres
LeeSar is a healthcare supply chain management company.
» Robb & Stucky, the high-end furniture retailer, was founded and has its headquarters in Fort Myers.
» Fort Myers-based Rib City has 28 locations nationwide and is planning more openings.
» Source Interlink, based in Bonita Springs, is a distributor of magazine publications. It is one of the largest wholesalers of DVDs and CDs in North America and one of the nation’s largest magazine publishers.
» NeoGenomics, based in Fort Myers, operates a network of cancer-focused testing laboratories. It employs 166.
» Storm Smart Industries in Fort Myers is the largest manufacturer and installer of hurricane protection products in Florida. The company is developing a line of products that use solar power.
» Algenol Biofuels, a Bonita Springs-based biotech company that turns algae into ethanol, is expanding in Lee County. It received $10 million from the county to build a new facility that will create 120 jobs.
• Big Private Employers
» Lee Memorial Health System: 9,434
» Publix Super Markets: 3,071
» Walmart: 1,967
» Chico’s: 1,388
» Target: 1,100
» Hope Hospice and Community Services: 880
» Comcast: 705
» Shell Point Retirement Community: 666
» 21st Century Oncology: 627
» Lowe’s: 626
» South Seas (LXR Luxury Resorts): 500
» CenturyLink: 500
» Bank of America: 500
Must Know Contacts
» Wilson Bradshaw — President, Florida Gulf Coast University
» David Call — South Florida president/CEO, Fifth Third Bank
» Mei-Mei Chan — Publisher, Fort Myers News-Press
» David Dyer — CEO, Chico’s
» Peter Dys — Shell Point Retirement Community’s president serves as chairman of the Governor’s Continuing Care Advisory Council.
» David Fry — President/CEO, WCI Communities
» Sam Galloway Jr. — President, Galloway Family of Dealerships
» Kitty Green — President/CEO, Habitat for Humanity-Lee County
» Tom Gunderson — Chairman of law firm Henderson Franklin’s real estate division
» Adam Hall — President, Impact Education
» Tammy Hall — Chair, Lee County Commissioners
» Jeff Kottkamp — Lieutenant governor of Florida
» Norman Love — Owner, Norman Love Confections
» David Lucas — Chairman, Bonita Bay Group; philanthropist
» Brian Lucas — Vice chairman/president/CEO, Bonita Bay Group
» Connie Mack IV — U.S. congressman
» Gail Markham — Partner, Markham Norton Mosteller Wright & Co. CPAs
» Greg Mays — CEO, Source Interlink
» Jim Moore — Executive director, Lee County Office of Economic Development
» Vicki Moreland — Director of public affairs, Lee County Port Authority
» Jim Nathan — CEO, Lee Memorial Health System
» Don Paight — Executive director, Fort Myers Redevelopment Agency
» Tamara Pigott — Executive director, Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau
» Steve Pontius — Executive vice president/general manager, Waterman Broadcasting
» Michael Reitmann — Executive vice president, Lee Building Association
» Jeff Rice — Managing partner, Goldstein, Buckley, Cechman, Rice & Purtz P.A. He is also an NFL official.
» Robbie Roepstorff — President, Edison National Bank
» John Sprecher — Chairman/creative director, branding company Noise
» Gary Trippe — Managing director, BB&T-Oswald Trippe and Co.
» Bill Valenti — President, Florida Gulf Bank
» Steve Wheeler — Director of major gifts and planned giving, Lee Memorial Health System Foundation
Quality of Life
A performance in front of the Sidney and Berne Davis Cultural Arts Center during Fort Myers’ monthly Art Walk [Photo: Amber Frederiksen]
» Fort Myers’ historic downtown riverfront has undergone about $1 billion in construction projects over the past few years, including extensive streetscaping, burying power lines and numerous renovations, including the conversion of a former federal building to the Sidney and Berne Davis Cultural Arts Center. An Art of the Olympians gallery showcases works created by Olympic athletes. Development just to the north and south of the historic core includes a grocery store and calls for 1,400 new condos in eight towers. A planned next phase of development along the riverfront includes a 200-room waterfront hotel atop a parking garage, improvements to the Harborside Event Center, an 82,000-sq.-ft. exhibition hall addition to Harborside on the post office site, several waterfront “signature” restaurant sites, and expansion of Centennial Park.
Art of the Olympians gallery
» Pine Island is the largest island on the west coast of Florida at 17 miles long and 2 miles wide. The island, which does not have a single traffic light, has an abundance of wildlife, including more than 20 pairs of American bald eagles. It’s also a center for organic farming.
» J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge — The 6,400-acre refuge on Sanibel Island is home to more than 220 species of birds.
Kayaking the Blueway Trail
[Photo: Lee County VCB/www.FortMyers-Sanibel.com]
» The Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium is a non-profit environmental education organization. The center is on 105 acres and has a museum, three nature trails and a planetarium.
• Arts & Leisure
» The award-winning Florida Repertory Theatre produces a variety of comedies, dramas and musicals from October to May at the Arcade Theatre.
» The winter homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford are both primary tourist attractions. The Edison home is complete with a laboratory and botanical gardens and more than 200 phonographs.
» Fort Myers is the spring training home for the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins. The city hosts the Gulf Coast League Red Sox.
» The Lee Civic Center bills itself as the largest indoor/outdoor event complex between Tampa and Miami located on 100 acres in Fort Myers. The civic center is 90,000 square feet and has seating capacity of 7,800.
» Lee County ranks 15th among Florida’s 67 counties in total taxies levied per capita.
» While crime is somewhat higher in Fort Myers, Lee County in 2009 ranked as the 29th-highest among Florida’s 67 counties in crime per 100,000 population.
» K-12: Of the county’s K-12 schools, 60 received A’s, 11 B’s, 14 C’s and 3 D’s. No school received an F from the state in 2009. SAT scores for the county’s high school seniors are on par with the state average: 988 vs. 994 statewide.
» Lee County won the 2010 Sustainable Waste Management in the U.S. award by the Waste-to-Energy Research and Technology Council.
» A $120-million expansion of Lee County’s Solid Waste Resource Recovery Facility received the 2009 Best Practices Award in the Partnership category from Sustainable Florida-Collins Center.
Why I Live Here
The natural tropical beauty of southwest Florida fits my casual lifestyle. The marine life. Boating with the family. Playing hockey with my friends.
With a good infrastructure and the enthusiastic support of the community, the Fort Myers business environment has been extremely favorable. As I am approaching the 10-year anniversary of Norman Love Confections, I’m actively exploring several opportunities to expand throughout the region.
Fort Myers is the perfect place to raise my children and grow my business. My career brought me to Fort Myers ... the lifestyle will keep me here.
— Norman Love
Norman Love Confections