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Business Observer Friday, Jul. 22, 2016 4 years ago

Hidden jewel

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North Fort Myers may be an undiscovered development opportunity. Busy traffic and riverfront land in private hands are two pluses.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

Executive Summary
Industry. Development Area. North Fort Myers Key. A waterfront development could be the spark for a renaissance in North Fort Myers.

Downtown Fort Myers has experienced a revival as dozens of popular restaurants, eclectic shops and hip restaurants attract new residents and office workers to the bustling area.

City officials have estimated $500 million worth of new development is underway or planned in downtown Fort Myers in a second wave of private investment that started after the bust.
One sure sign that the area has become a hotspot: Parking is a problem.

But take a short drive across the Caloosahatchee River into North Fort Myers and the mood is very different. Empty shops, acres of parking, vacant parcels and mobile-home parks give the area a sense that the economic recovery has bypassed it.

Even neighbor Cape Coral, which was devastated by the real estate recession, has returned to new construction with a vengeance. The Pine Island Road corridor has attracted the newest Wawa gas stations and Wal-Mart Supercenter.

Landowners and business owners in North Fort Myers don't seem to have much to say about it and most won't return phone calls. Even real estate brokers who specialize in the area don't seem too keen to discuss it.

But that could change soon. In an effort to spark redevelopment in North Fort Myers, Lee County commissioned a study to help economic development officials sell the area to developers. “Everything should be on the table,” says Brian Hamman, the Lee County commissioner whose district includes North Fort Myers.

The opportunity
Most people agree North Fort Myers' best asset is privately owned waterfront on the Caloosahatchee River, which marks the community's southern border. That's in contrast to downtown Fort Myers, which has sealed off its waterfront with public parks.

“This area has so much potential because it's on the water,” says Rachel Busch, strategic projects manager with the Lee County Economic Development Office.

Busy U.S. 41 and Business 41 bisect the community, which is bordered on the north by the Charlotte County line. “More people drive over those two 41s than any other street in the county,” Busch says. “That just spells opportunity.”

The county has created a website, DevelopNFM.com, to generate interest. “A few months ago we put together a work plan to bring awareness to these areas,” Busch says.

For example, the website includes an interactive map with links to social media. Zooming in allows users to identify existing businesses. “Why is this a great place to do business?
We're telling the stories about real people and businesses,” Busch says.

Lee County has hired DCG Corplan Consulting of New Jersey to evaluate North Fort Myers and two other economically struggling areas. Its report is due next month.

“Let's get some fresh data on demographics, on business activity, rooftops, vacancy levels and let's get all that data so we have something to look at and share with prospective developers and site selectors,” says John Gardner, owner of Lee County Insurance Co. and chairman of the county's North Fort Myers task force.

The county asked for public input and received 519 responses, more than double the 200 they expected. “People really care about what's happening in North Fort Myers,” says Busch.

Indeed, North Fort Myers is on the radar. Cape Coral developer Dan Creighton, who specializes in developing in areas that have been overlooked, says North Fort Myers and the U.S. 41 corridor into Charlotte County present redevelopment opportunities.

Fort Myers restaurateur John Browning says sales at Three Fishermen Seafood Restaurant on the river in North Fort Myers have risen for five years straight. “April and May have both been records,” Browning says. “As we see more and more people buying homes down here and moving here again, hopefully it's going to continue.”

Browning leases the restaurant space from the Best Western hotel's owner, which he says is spending $1 million to renovate the rooms and the dock. “The parking lot was repaved this summer,” he says.

Meanwhile, developer Dennis Fullenkamp acquired Paradise Preserve last year, a North Fort Myers residential development that had fallen into foreclosure last year. Fullenkamp declined to discuss the future of that project, but it's an indicator that investors are scouting deals there.

Plans for North Fort Myers have been drafted before, but those focused on the commercial area away from the river where development hasn't occurred as many had hoped. “The heart of the town going forward should be the riverfront,” Hamman says.

Challenges remain
While no one wants to predetermine the outcome of the upcoming study by DCG, few people would argue in favor of more shops. “There was too much retail space built here and not enough people to spend it in those locations,” Hamman says.

“The demographics don't have the buying power in that area,” says Busch. “Clearly retail isn't it.”

Don't expect the government to provide a massive injection of money into a public project such as a ballpark or a convention center, either. “The private sector should drive development,” Hamman says.

Hamman says there are some things government can do, such as build utilities and make it easier to develop mixed-use projects. “What we need to do as a government is create the right conditions,” he says.

Fact is, many North Fort Myers properties remain on septic tanks despite the cost and environmental risks, a major drawback for redevelopment. “For a developer to come in, they've got to put in $15 million worth of sewer lines,” Gardner says.

For example, Gardner says a recently proposed Dollar General store got the green light for a new septic tank. “It's in an area that floods every time it rains,” he grumbles.

Sewer access is one of the reasons developers have chosen to go elsewhere. “Cape Coral has jumped ahead of us and they've made it very attractive to use the Pine Island corridor,” Gardner says.

Another challenge is that land ownership in North Fort Myers is fractured. “The folks who own the big parcels aren't local,” Hamman says.

“What's hard is that there are so many owners,” says Busch, who estimates there are 200 major commercial landowners from the river to Pondella Road, between U.S. 41 and Business 41.

But Busch and others hope the North Fort Myers study may be the catalyst that rallies the community. “Economic development is a team sport,” says Busch. “It makes no sense to throw down an upscale development in a community that wants to be laid back. You have to do projects that match the identity of the area.”

This brings the focus back to the waterfront, which could be the draw that sparks redevelopment in the rest of the area. “The waterfront would be the crown jewel,” Busch says. “You've got to have the first project that sets the tone.”

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