Collier County used to be one of the most difficult places on the Gulf Coast to develop and build, but leadership from the private sector has changed that.
Developers and builders may remember Collier County was once a difficult place to do business.
But that perception has been fading as private-sector executives such as David Wilkison moved into key roles in Collier County government. Wilkison is part of a new wave of top-level county employees who understand the value of time and predictability for developers and builders.
One year ago, Collier County Manager Leo Ochs tapped Wilkison to head the county's growth management department. It's a critical position because any development or construction request passes through its doors. “We do everything from A to Z, airports to zoning,” Wilkison says.
A Naples native, Wilkison has deep roots in the private sector. He started his own civil engineering and planning firm in Naples in 1989 and merged it with WilsonMiller in 2002, becoming a principal with the go-to Collier engineering firm that was later sold to Canadian giant Stantec.
One year ago, Ochs lured Wilkison away from Stantec to take on the government job of overseeing growth management. Switching to the public sector has taken some adjustment, he acknowledges. “It's never dull,” Wilkison laughs. “There's a surprise around every corner.”
Still, you have to give credit to Wilkison and James French, the deputy department head of the growth-management department, for instituting business-like policies. For example, if a homebuilder doesn't get a residential building permit within five business days, the county will refund half the permit fee. So far, the department has never been late. “This industry is our client,” says Wilkison.
Wilkison, who oversees a staff of more than 500 people in 10 operating divisions and an annual budget of $100 million, says there are plenty of opportunities for new development despite the fact that most of the county is conservation land.
Many of the new opportunities for development are east of Interstate 75, especially along the Immokalee Road corridor. “In Collier, it's go east young man,” Wilkison says.
In fact, Ave Maria in eastern Collier County is the top-selling community in Southwest Florida. Nearby, Minto Communities is planning a 10,000-home town now dubbed Rural Lands West. “It's a big town,” Wilkison says. “There's a tremendous amount of planning going on now.”
Even Immokalee, once a sleepy rural town in east Collier, is seeing increased attention. “We have a permit office in Immokalee and it's busy,” says French.
Wilkison says one of the biggest challenges that Collier County faces is building roads to handle the new development and the county commissioners will be considering additional financing in the fall. “We'll be talking about debt for infrastructure projects,” Wilkison told a gathering of the Real Estate Investment Society in Fort Myers recently.
New roads promise to open previously undeveloped areas, too. For example, Collier is planning to extend Logan Boulevard parallel to I-75 from Immokalee Road to Bonita Beach Road in south Lee County. “We've got to plan for our traffic infrastructure,” Wilkison says.