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Guest Opinion: Diversity is the path for a better Lee County

February 6, 2020
By Charlotte Newton , North Fort Myers Neighbor

Recently, the respected website, WalletHub, ranked Lee County as the worst place for STEM professionals in 100 metro areas surveyed, surely nothing to be proud of. Yet last October, when we were rated the #1 best place in the nation to retire, Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass boasted about it, calling for even more retirees to relocate here. I don't think he's boasting now.

In past discussions with two young mothers, both potential candidates for political office, I asked each to describe her vision for a future Lee County. Surprisingly, both articulated the same wish: a community in which their children would want to remain and raise their own families.

Unfortunately, Commissioner Pendergrass's vision is out of alignment with younger people here -- and with mine. I'm happy others want to relocate here, but do we really want Lee County to be one vast retirement community? What the Commissioner failed to say is that while Lee is #1 for retirement, it's in the bottom half on the AARP livability index. Or that 28.6% of Lee's population is aged 65+ according to latest Census data; nationally, the 65+ group is 16%. And now it's rated last for "quality of life" by WalletHub.

Lee County once had a robust planning process bringing neighbors together to exchange their aspirations for their communities. These deliberations fed into the larger Comprehensive Plan. Today, that plan is all but ignored by our county commissioners when they consider zoning and land use requests.

Time and again the commissioners have listened to residents' testimony on new land uses, only to ignore their concerns and anguish. Whether mining expansion, re-zoning of rural land to accommodate even more gated communities, or neighborhood outrage over an unwanted gas station, our BoCC has consistently and steadfastly gone its own way - always, it seems, in favor of developers. A recent example: Oak Villages, a 262-unit apartment complex approved for a rural-designated area zoned for 2.5 5 acre homes - approved, of course, over the loud objections of people who bought there specifically for its rural environment.

Do we really want a county tilted so heavily toward retirees? Residents of different ages, ethnicities, religions and genders are threads in the quilt that make an interesting and inviting community. Diversity brings a vibrancy and hum to debates and conversations, and the give-and-take of everyday life. It helps us be more tolerant of others and accepting of different viewpoints. And demographically, it increases our appreciation for the experiences and wisdom of others.

Attracting younger people - and keeping those who grow up here in our community - is indeed challenging. Young people need to visualize a future job-wise for themselves in Lee County, whether in the trades, tech, or tourism. It also means offering a wide range of amenities, from cultural events to educational opportunities to sports venues and teams - and, yes, even bars and clubs that stay open late. And it includes seeing themselves raising their families here, sending their children to excellent schools, taking advantage of early childhood learning programs, quality health care, and outdoor recreation.

Though sometimes in short supply, we now have these amenities. But if we continue on this path, if we think retirees are the key to our economic prosperity, if we give up on attracting and keeping the young and the ambitious, if we continue paving over wetlands and open spaces, we will fail to nurture and develop future leaders. We look to our elected leadership to offer a vision of where we want to go, how we will get there, and when. Sadly, Commissioner Pendergrass's narrow vision will lead us nowhere.

- Charlotte Newton is a member of the Steering Committee of Women For a Better Lee



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