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Wright back

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  • | 10:00 a.m. October 31, 2014
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When Christopher Wright closed his civil engineering firm's Fort Myers office during the recession, he promised his employees he'd reopen it when the economy improved.

Wright recently delivered on his promise, reopening an office of RWA Consulting in Fort Myers. The firm's seven Fort Myers-area employees had been commuting to RWA's office in Naples during the recession.

“It's nothing more than a promise to them,” says Wright, the CEO of RWA. “Those people have been with us for the whole roller coaster ride.”

After retrenching during the downturn, finding and retaining qualified staff is once again on every firm's agenda, and Wright says providing office space for employees in Fort Myers is key to that. “Everybody in our industry right now is on the upswing,” he says.

At the peak of the real estate boom in 2006, RWA had as many as 97 employees. But as demand for civil engineering fell during the downturn, RWA pared back to about 25 employees. “We had a slow unraveling like everyone else,” says Wright.

RWA survived by shifting to government projects, which by 2009 made up 90% of the firm's work. “We were smart enough to get into the public sector,” Wright says.

In addition, RWA teamed up with national firms such as CH2M Hill and Post Buckley to bid on larger projects in the region. “That strategy turned out to be a pretty good idea,” Wright says.

Now, the private sector is rebounding and Wright says it's once again the majority of its work. “We've been able to build a backlog,” he says. “The workload is more predictable and it's longer term.”

Wright says revenues at RWA could rise another 15% to 20%. The firm posted revenues of $2.5 million in 2013 and Wright anticipates revenues of $3 million this year. In 2005, revenues were $7.5 million.
The firm helps national homebuilders such as Pulte and D.R. Horton as well as regional firms such as Stock Development and Neal Communities with planning for new residential developments. That's because they need new lots to sell. “Most of the existing inventory has diminished,” Wright says.

The lot-inventory shrinkage started in the Naples area. “Collier County has been ahead of Lee County,” Wright says.

But Lee has become more attractive as land and housing costs escalated in Collier. “Lee County has a lot of good things going for it,” says Wright, singling out Southwest Florida International Airport, Florida Gulf Coast University and Hertz's new corporate headquarters.

Even inland counties are seeing renewed interest. Large landowners in areas such as Hendry County are securing development rights for future projects such as the Heartland Expressway, a proposed road that would run parallel to Interstate 75 through the center of the state.

Southwest Florida's growth is again attracting attention from outside the region. “Some of the east coast developers are looking at the west coast,” Wright says.

Follow Jean Gruss on Twitter @JeanGruss


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