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Business Observer Friday, Mar. 20, 2015 4 years ago

Full swing

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Commercial and residential building activity is on the rise in one Charlotte city, with more growth projected.
by: Beth Luberecki Contributing Writer

Swinging hammers, concrete trucks and hard hats aren't uncommon sights these days in Punta Gorda, which is experiencing something of a building boom.

The city, perhaps best known for being on the devastating receiving end of 2004's Hurricane Charley, has been steadily climbing its way back and shows no signs of slowing down.
“Most studies show that after a major event like a hurricane, it takes 10 years for an area to completely rebound,” says Randall Cole, chief building official for the city of Punta Gorda. “The recession didn't help us there, but we're back now to pre-storm, pre-recession days.”

The single-family home sector is particularly hot. The city of Punta Gorda issued 107 permits for single-family homes in 2014, up 282% from 28 in 2011 and only 12 in 2009. And according to Cole, 2015 permits are already up 30% over the same time period last year.

It's not just residential, either. Businesses are expanding, according to area economic development officials, and the county has picked up some buzz outside Florida. In the past month, for example, the Charlotte County Economic Development Office has gotten calls from companies in Maine, Indiana, New York, Michigan, Missouri and Tennessee interested in relocating or expanding to the area. Activity like the Cheney Brothers distribution center going up near the Punta Gorda Airport is also catching locals' attention.

What's driving the activity? An improved local and national economy is one factor. People have more money to spend than they did several years ago.

Punta Gorda also remains more affordable than many of its neighbors. “A waterfront lot here, which puts you about five minutes from Charlotte Harbor, goes for about $200,000 to $300,000,” says Cole. “That same lot in Fort Myers or Sarasota would probably cost near $1 million.”

And waterfront lots aren't hard to come by: About 80% of home sites in Punta Gorda sit along one of the city's many canals.

A Charlotte County advertising campaign has also helped spur homebuilding in Punta Gorda. For the past two winters the county has targeted folks in northern climes, many of whom conveniently live in cities serviced by Allegiant Air, which flies in and out of the Punta Gorda Airport. Ads drive people to the county's LocatetoParadise.com website, which extols the virtues of living in this part of the Gulf Coast.

“Our hits have been off the charts this year,” says Tom Patton, director of the Charlotte County Economic Development Office. “Every day there's a snowstorm coming across the Midwest or Northeast, we get spikes in activity.”

On the commercial side, Punta Gorda issued between 31 and 41 permits a year over the last four years, a healthy level of activity for a city its size. Much of that has been for smaller, standalone commercial structures. Currently in the pipeline: an O'Reilly Auto Parts store and a new Goodwill bookstore.

Cole expects to see commercial permitting numbers increase, especially when developers take another look at some of Punta Gorda's sizable vacant parcels. The city of Punta Gorda recently annexed the site known as the Loop, which is located near Interstate 75 and has potential for major retail and commercial development. The former City Marketplace site in downtown Punta Gorda also remains vacant, “but I don't see that lying fallow for long,” says Cole.

The multifamily market is also making a comeback. The last time the city saw much activity there was in 2007, when it permitted 14 multifamily projects. The city is currently reviewing plans for 60 senior living units from the Punta Gorda Housing Authority and is getting ready to permit a 52-unit apartment complex called the Oaks on Henry.

“We're going bonkers, like things were five, six years ago,” says Patton. “We're in a boom cycle, and Florida is a hot spot again. It's happening all around the state, but we may be experiencing a little more of a hit because we're a more affordable place, and that's what a lot of people are looking for.”

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