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Charlotte-Lee-Collier
Business Observer Friday, Oct. 3, 2003 14 years ago

Southwest Florida's Growth Engine

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Commercial property makes up less than 10% of Cape Coral's ad valorem tax base. Can the growing city become a thriving business center?

Southwest Florida's Growth Engine

Commercial property makes up less than 10% of Cape Coral's ad valorem tax base. Can the growing city become a thriving business center?

By William R. Waites

Associate Editor

LEE COUNTY - For five years, Cape Coral wooed new businesses by emphasizing the city's quality of life. As characterized by the positioning line, "You'll like the attitude in Paradise," the city was attempting to capitalize on its previous positioning of "It's just Paradise," while adding reference to its pro-business attitude at city hall.

The approach enticed more residents than businesses. In 2000, Cape Coral passed the 100,000-resident mark and today it is pushing 125,000. That growth makes it the ninth-fastest growing city over 100,000 in the United States and the fastest growing in Florida. The next closest Florida city is Pembroke Pines at 22nd nationally.

Mike Jackson, the city's Economic Development Department executive director, says that of all the reasons to move a business to Cape Coral, surging growth is the most attractive.

The city's new strategy promotes the advantages of a rapidly growing population, using the new positioning line, "The Growth Engine of Southwest Florida."

"There are a lot of places in Florida with nice tropical lifestyles," Jackson says. "But a business needs to know that there is more." He lists four elements necessary for Cape Coral's economic development plan to attract businesses.

First, create awareness. Many people don't know where Cape Coral is, let alone what it offers.

Second is sales, including work with prospective companies. "The decision to move is different for each company," Jackson says. But all companies want to be where action and growth are considered good.

Third, product development. "Investors must be encouraged to develop the facilities new companies need," he says. "Investors have appetites. We must serve those."

Jackson says the city plays an especially important role. "We can bring in the customers and employees by encouraging development of areas in the Cape that are available for residential neighborhoods. We are working to bring in other businesses that support and supply the new companies."

Jackson contends the closer companies are to customers, employees and vendors, the more successful they are likely to be. That's an incentive for investors to put money into the commercial and retail buildings that new businesses will fill.

Fourth is a pro-business environment. That means working with the city to foster a receptive attitude toward business.

One compelling need for that pro-business attitude in Cape Coral is dramatized by the sources of ad valorem taxes. Only 9% comes from commercial properties. Homeowners pay the remaining 91%. Jackson is working on a model to show that continued growth on that trajectory limits services that can be delivered without large residential tax increases. "I intend to show that moving the contribution of commercial tax to 20% or 25% will make life much better for everyone here," he says.

As part of its committed approach to recruiting new business, the city has separated tourism development from efforts to convince key business sectors they should relocate to Cape Coral.

The city has decided to focus on industries based on emerging clusters of existing businesses or appropriate existing infrastructure. Jackson lists microbiology, marine manufacturing and service, businesses providing creative services, residential/commercial construction, and government/military contractors. One defense contractor is already based there.

Those industries have chosen Cape Coral for its friendly labor environment with 4% unemployment, existing infrastructure and the reassurance of being among companies with similar needs and growth patterns, he says. Officials must cultivate existing businesses and make the city their source for support.

As an implementation of its new "growth engine" strategy, the Economic Development Department is developing new materials to identify zones where investment is aggressively encouraged. One is the Pine Island Road Corridor that extends from Pine Island to U.S. 41, with a connection to Interstate 75.

Carl Schwing, Cape Coral's director of community development, says the Pine Island project will be market-driven. Two other key investment zones are around the new city hall called City Centrum, which will include offices of professional services and vendors that will serve the city, and the Downtown Community Redevelopment Area, one of the first retail areas developed in Cape Coral.

Chet Hunt, executive director of the Cape Coral Community Redevelopment Agency, says the city encourages the revitalization of service establishments, restaurants and retail stores in the area, through grants for storefront and facade improvements.

Condominium development is also in the plan to generate downtown residents who will patronize retail facilities. Zoning changes will invite investors to construct buildings up to six stories tall with retail shops on the ground floor, offices on the second floor and condominium residences on the upper floors.

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