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Downtown Champion

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  • | 5:55 p.m. March 11, 2010
  • Florida
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Review Summary
Who. Randy Henderson Jr.
What. Mayor of Fort Myers
Key. Develop a long-term vision to prepare for the economic recovery.

As Lee County grows more hostile to developers and builders, along comes Randy Henderson Jr.

The newly elected mayor of Fort Myers is swinging open the doors of the city to entrepreneurs with promises of lower taxes and fees as well as prudent fiscal management. “We're open for business and you're invited,” he says.

While Henderson may have been elected in the heart of a recession, the city of Fort Myers may benefit from Lee County's recent efforts to prohibit new development on huge swaths of land and discourage investors with high construction taxes and slow permitting. The county has even sued the state for relaxing draconian development rules, an action Henderson says the city won't join.

For developers and builders, Fort Myers may increasingly represent the path of least resistance. Unlike Lee County commissioners, Henderson understands that government can help entrepreneurs by getting out of their way. “Government frequently is an impediment,” he says.

One of Henderson's goals is to remake the waterfront of downtown Fort Myers, an ambitious $220 million, 10-year plan that calls for expanding the convention center, luring a flagship hotel, restaurants, shops and office buildings. While he served on the City Council, the city spent about $50 million over the last five years replacing aging utilities and rebuilding the streets with brick pavers.

Henderson is realistic about the recession's impact on funding such an ambitious project, but he remains eager to promote the downtown plan to be ready for the eventual rebound. “Just because we're in difficulties doesn't mean we sit on our hands,” he says. “I'm compelled to champion this.”

Henderson, 54, understands as few other do what it takes to run a business. He's the president of Corbin Henderson Co., a successful family owned real estate firm, a position he's held since he left commercial banking in 1986.

Friends and business associates say Henderson has a developer's vision and a banker's attention to detail, two traits that will serve the city well. “Randy is a big-picture guy, but he also has command of the facts,” says Steve Jones, a Naples money manager and entrepreneur who serves on the board of Fort Myers-based T3 Communications with Henderson.

Henderson is known as a consensus builder who is a good listener. “He doesn't shoot from the hip,” says Phil Gaylor, a longtime acquaintance who is president of Lott & Gaylor Insurance in Fort Myers. “He listens, he considers, he looks for alternatives and after he feels comfortable with all those, he responds.”

Some friends discouraged Henderson from running for mayor because they knew he would become a target for making necessary budget cuts in a downturn, says Steve Shimp, retired chairman of Owen Ames Kimball Co., a construction firm in Fort Myers.

“Randy, why in the blue blazes are you doing this?” Shimp remembers asking Henderson. The answer: “He has the motivation to work in community service. I don't think he has higher political aspirations.”

An event every night
Although he was born and raised in North Carolina and moved to Fort Myers in the early 1980s, Henderson has become ingrained in the social fabric of the city he's lived in for 28 years. He networks relentlessly and belongs to the major social clubs in town. City Hall is named after his father-in-law, Oscar Corbin, who served as mayor of Fort Myers from 1967 to 1976.

Even before he became mayor, Henderson kept a busy pace as an entrepreneur and city councilman. “He's got an event every night of the week,” says Tad Yeatter, president of Schooner Bay Realty in Cape Coral and a business associate who marvels at Henderson's stamina. “He doesn't get much peace. His cell phone rings all the time. I don't know when he has down time.”

Henderson recently acquired a pilot's license and Yeatter says the mayor likes to take off to places like Sebring for the day.

But just because Henderson is gregarious and outgoing doesn't mean anything goes. “Randy is not in anybody's camp,” Yeatter cautions. “He's his own man.”

And those who know Henderson well say they've seen his temper flare occasionally, especially if he feels someone is acting dishonorably. “I've seen it a couple times, though not directed at me yet,” Shimp chuckles. “He holds it pretty well and he internalizes it.”

Corbin Henderson owns and leases buildings in downtown Fort Myers, but business associates say Henderson's vision is much broader than his business interests. “He's not doing that just because he's has
property downtown,” says Shimp. If it doesn't fit a greater vision for the city, entrepreneurs looking to make a fast buck need not knock on Henderson's door.

In fact, Henderson says ownership gives him a stake in the outcome and so makes him a better long-term advocate for Fort Myers. “I've got skin in the game,” he says.

Tough decisions
Before the grand vision for downtown can turn to reality, there's the recession. Henderson is facing a $16 million shortfall in the city's budget this year and he's already getting criticized from the police chief for proposed cuts to the force.

“Randy's going to have folks yelling at him and that's not easy,” says Shimp. “He'll have some personal agony.”

One thing Henderson makes clear is that the budget won't be balanced by raising taxes. “The expense side has to shrink,” Henderson says. These will include cuts in staff and services, he warns.

Henderson won't unilaterally shut the door to higher taxes, but not before deep cuts happen first. For example, property taxes may rise by a small amount to close a small gap if expenses can't be trimmed further. “I do believe it's an absolute last resort,” Henderson says.

One of his biggest challenges will be to maintain city employees' morale in the midst of cuts. “I'd like for our staff to be entrepreneurial,” he says. “We've got to push down through the rank and file the spirit of service.”

Rewarding employees who deliver top-notch service with money, time off or special recognition may be a way to generate that enthusiasm, he says.

One thing Henderson won't do is join the county in lawsuits challenging state laws relaxing development rules. “From our perspective, that's not a place we want to go,” Henderson says. Unlike the county, Henderson doesn't want to spend valuable taxpayer money suing the state.

For now, Henderson has a pro-business city council on his side. “During the boom times, when we had developers knocking on the doors, the council could be more selective and restrictive,” says Don Paight, executive director of the Fort Myers Redevelopment Agency. “The tone has changed because times are different,” he says.

Welcome developers
One of the first things Henderson did when he became mayor was ask the city manager to figure out how to waive licensing fees and taxes on new construction (better known as “impact fees.”)

“I expect the city manager to come up with a plan,” Henderson recently pledged to a crowd at a Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce luncheon. “I'm on a mission to make that happen.”

Henderson says he's paying particular attention to the permit process. “Our building department is the economic engine of our city,” he says.

Henderson vowed to follow every major project as it winds its way through the permitting process, but the city manager persuaded him that it wasn't necessary.

Henderson says he reluctantly agreed. “I don't want to get over there and micro manage,” Henderson says. “But I'm watching,” he adds with a wink.

Riverside revival
Only a snowstorm that dumped nearly three feet of snow kept Randy Henderson Jr. from traveling to Washington D.C. recently.

This would have been the Fort Myers mayor's third trip to the nation's capital since he was elected last fall. He's on a pilgrimage for federal funds to launch an ambitious 10-year, $220 million plan to revive the city's waterfront. Of that sum, Henderson expects the city's contribution will be about $60 million.

“I'm the guy who goes prospecting,” Henderson says.

With the city short of funds because of the recession, Henderson believes Fort Myers has a good chance to get federal money to build the first phase of the project. That includes a $6 million basin that will filter stormwater runoff.

Besides the aesthetic appeal of appearing to bring the Caloosahatchee River into the city, the basin will eliminate the need for landowners and developers to mitigate stormwater runoff from their projects. “We have Johnson Engineering working on that right now,” says Don Paight, executive director of the Fort Myers Redevelopment Agency.

In addition, the city plans to build a public 200-car, four-story parking garage upon which a privately owned 220-room hotel could be built. The hotel and parking garage would be next to Harborside Even Center, which itself is slated for expansion.

Once those first projects are completed in the next three years, city officials hope an economic recovery would make investors feel confident about building offices, shops and restaurants in the area now marketed as the River District.

“We're betting that the pedestrian traffic will drive retail and restaurant traffic,” says Douglas Smith, vice president with Acquest Realty Advisors. The city hired Acquest to help draft and implement the downtown plan.

That, in turn, could attract young entrepreneurs in hot fields such as technology who seek an urban setting. “Those kids are going to want to work in an urban setting, not in a tech park near the airport,” Smith says.

Fort Myers had a history of conventions before its main hotel was blacklisted and eventually shut down because of poor service. “When the Sheraton was open, we had 26 conventions a week,” says Paight.

For now, though, Florida is tainted with residential and commercial foreclosures. “The financing in this environment is very difficult, particularly for the private side,” Smith acknowledges.

Downtown Fort Myers is no exception. Lenders have foreclosed on empty condos and a boutique hotel there. Still, as prices reset, investors who raised billions of dollars to buy distressed may consider new projects instead if they make economic sense, Smith says.

Besides federal grants, Acquest is helping Henderson identify public sources of financing such as tax-exempt bonds. “To get these things done, you have to have a lot of political support,” says Smith. Henderson “is a huge asset to the city.”

The City Council is scheduled to bless the plan on April 5.

Jean Gruss covers the Lee-Collier region. He can be reached at {encode="j[email protected]" title="[email protected]"}, or at 239-415-4422


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