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Study: NFM has potential ‘downtown’ business hub

January 11, 2017
By CHUCK BALLARO ( , North Fort Myers Neighbor

Twenty years from now, when you go over the Caloosahatchee River Bridge on Cleveland Avenue, you will see a downtown business center with professional offices, entertainment venues and institutional and cultural areas.

That was the recommendation made by the authors of the long-awaited North Fort Myers market-based assessment, which was completed last month and will be formally introduced at an event in February.

Lee County Commissioner Brian Hamman, who spearheaded the effort to produce the study, said the report gives them a base by which to.

"Before, the numbers were different depending on the source you used. They weren't uniform. Now we have a report to work from and that's one of the big outcomes we got," Hamman said.

The study, prepared by DCG Corplan Consulting from New Jersey, looked at the area between the old and new 41's between Pondella Road and the Caloosahatchee River, which is considered the most unique location as it abuts the water and downtown Fort Myers and links Fort Myers to Cape Coral.

"Projected job growth and its associated demand for new office space will propel the area forward as a downtown business center, capable of intercepting commuters and providing professional and business services to a growing North Fort Myers community," the study concluded.

The highway retail should be transformed into a business and entertainment hub, which will give the area a "sense of place," which they hope will result in an increase in housing attractive to millennials as a place to live and work.

"I see North Fort Myers as a place with its own identity, but very complementary with the success we've seen in downtown Fort Myers," Hamman said. "Now, there is no sense of place."

Many of the area's attributes, according to the study, is its vicinity to I-75 and the airport and high traffic flow in and out of the area. Nearby venues include Marinatown, Pine Island Road's retail corridor and the Shell Factory.

Also, as the area is one of the fastest growing in the country, the region has garnered interest from corporations. The North Fort Myers Market Area is projected at about 8,000 new positons by 2020, with many of them white-collar jobs in the fields of management, business, science and arts.

Food service and hotels are also considered growth targets, but retail is not expected to create demand, but modest growth is expected, according to the study.

"This is a real opportunity for this area and all of Lee County. We can't send everyone over the bridge every day. At some point the bridge will be exhausted. We need more employment opportunities on the north side of the river," Hamman said. "People can work closer to home."

Of course, this is a long-term project that will take decades. The area will have to overcome current obstacles, including the poor conditions of empty retail stores, the underutilization of the waterfront with no public access, low income, crime and vagrancy issues in the Cabana City area, and the "unmet opportunity the area offers and the pent-up frustration for action."

In the past, population expansion north drove retail development along the Old and New 41. However, when I-75 was built and Cape Coral grew, the wave of retail was refocused north, creating a void and a slow economic decline that has resulted in the conditions that exist today.

The study said interest should have been sparked following the 2008 recession, but interest lagged while business went to the south and east.

Other challenges noted by the study include the lack of an east-west presence beyond Pondella Road, an older demographic with little spending power, the housing market, which is largely either mobile or manufactured homes, and a low level of education (which is improving).

There are some things the study suggested could be done in the short term, including:

Work with the Florida DOT to improve access to corridor businesses between the 41s;

Develop a plan to facilitate the aggregation of properties that present a challenge to potential investors;

Address regulatory issues that prevent and deter development, including modifying height and density limitations;

Create a non-profit development agency or dedicate more county staff to determine the best way to facilitate revitalization strategies;

Create a campaign to rebrand the area as a welcoming destination;

Create value-added incentive program to encourage development;

Consider public investment to stimulate private investment.

The $50,000 study began on March 8, 2016 with a kick-off meeting at the Lee County offices. The study was to be fished in six months, but took much longer than anticipated.

"For a long time a lot of folks have said something has to be done with North Fort Myers. We've seen the rest of Lee County come back, but not this area," Hamman said. "It has all this potential, so it was well worth it to try and understand the problems., and that's the first step, to see what you're up against."



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