Take a drive down either of the 41's in North Fort Myers and you'd have a hard time believing that Lee County is in the middle of a strong recovery from "The Great Recession." Shopping plazas and storefronts that were once occupied by popular name brands are sitting empty. Every few months a new restaurant will open, only to close a few months later.
Why is this historic community, originally homesteaded by John Powell, one of our first county commissioners, still struggling as the rest of Lee County comes back? County commissioners wanted to answer that question when they commissioned a market based assessment of North Fort Myers in 2016.
The results confirmed much of what our long time residents and businesses have believed for years. North Fort Myers, specifically the area between Pondella Road and the riverfront has become a pass-thru and not a destination. The challenges are many, according to the study. It calls out the high number of retail vacancies, limited east-west travel connections, the poor level of building maintenance and the fact that the riverfront area has no sense of place or identity.
The time to change is now. County Commissioners held a workshop last week with the consultant who performed the market study and discussed how his analysis can be turned into an actionable plan to help revitalize the area. The workshop was well attended by a large number of interested North Fort Myers residents. My fellow Commissioners embraced the ideas presented and provided staff with a clear direction to proceed with redevelopment plans.
As an unincorporated community, North Fort Myers residents count on their Lee County commissioners as their local government. Even though community redevelopment is not a traditional role of the county, we can work to create the right environment for economic growth.
Local government is charged with providing infrastructure, like roads and utilities. It is also responsible for land-use regulations. So these are two easy places for us to start. Looking at a map, it becomes clear that the potential customers living in homes between the two 41's and further east have no easy path to the commercial corridor on N. Cleveland Ave. We can create better road connections, to form a grid network through the riverfront community that will ultimately connect customers with businesses.
To create a sense of place, we can use the area's biggest asset, the riverfront. Creating public access and community amenities on the riverfront will be the catalyst for private investors to redevelop the surrounding areas.
Downtown Fort Myers has become a destination and connecting the north and south shores via the water gives North Fort Myers a chance to share in the success. This could be done by offering a free water shuttle so that folks living in the condos on either shore or hotel guests could easily visit the dining and entertainment that both communities offer, without having to use their car. The cost to operate this water shuttle would be a fraction of the cost of adding a bike path and sidewalk to the bridge. A bike path and sidewalk could cost more than $10 million and take a decade to design, permit and construct.
The potential is there to create a beautiful community that will provide opportunities for our future generations. As Lee County grows it will be important to direct our growth to areas that can be filled in, instead of sprawling out towards our borders. Making smart investments now to strengthen our existing communities and get people working closer to home will ensure that we can handle our future growth.
- Brian Hamman represents District 4 on the Lee County Board of County Commissioners.