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Cape to reconsider ‘Academic Village’

By Staff | May 17, 2008

In 2003. the Cape Coral city council signed off on the purchase of 171 acres in the northeastern section of the city to develop into an Academic Village that would become the city’s central education hub. The land was purchased to attract colleges or universities to a specific site in Lee County’s largest city, have a set place for a future charter high school and to integrate other public learning facilities to help develop the Cape’s future workforce.

But lean economic times have forced schools like Florida Gulf Coast University to limit enrollment and dismiss any ideas of branch expansion. The city’s charter high school will begin elsewhere with a new building likely to be constructed near Oasis Middle school. The site on the intersection of Kismet Parkway and Del Prado Boulevard continues to lay vacant five years after the city paid $6.8 million for it.

Economic development director Mike Jackson plans to ask the council for approval to submit requests for proposal to private developers to build a large scale research or business park on the land, which would change the site’s goals dramatically. But on Friday, Jackson said that the commercial park area would only make up a section of Academic Village, not replace it as some in the city originally thought.

“I think there is an unfortunate conclusion that some might draw that we might supplant one or the other,” he said, adding that the Cape wants to bring in high technology jobs but has no place where businesses can relocate. “The challenge for us as a city we need to have developed properties for most of these companies to move into.”

At a town hall meeting Thursday, Mayor Eric Feichthaler dismissed the idea of a commercial park being constructed on city-owned land. He argued that if the city wants to get something going immediately at the site, it might as well sell the land, and allow a private developer to build something situable.

But Jackson’s idea to retain city ownership on land on which private developers can build is not a novel concept.

“The way would approach this is to offer the opportunity for the private sector to lease the land from us and build upon it,” the economic development director said. “This is modeled after what the Lee Port Authority did at (Southwest Florida International Airport).”

Feichthaler was fairly certain that very little would come of Monday’s vote, but voiced his opposition to any plan of action that could lead to spending taxpayer funds on a study for the site’s best use.

“We’re going to be spending money to figure out options and my feeling is that it is premature,” he added in a Friday phone interview. “We should really stick to our goal at having a university branch on that site.”

A submission of requests for proposal would be of “no cost or relatively low cost” to determine whether or not there is an interest in developing such a critical segment of land, Jackson said.

The mayor is concerned about the five years that have gone by, and said that the wetlands that make up large tracts of Academic Village, should have been resolved before the land was purchased. But despite that worry, he argued that the city should stick with its original vision if it believes in the concept.

“I don’t think it means we should rush into something just because it has been five years,” Feichthaler said, adding that opportunities to develop the site will crop up when the economy turns around.

Councilman Tim Day, who represents the area where Academic Village is located, supports Jackson’s plan, so long as it retains significant educational segments.

“I think it’s a great idea, I think it needs to get done,” he said Friday. “Certainly a combination of commercial along with the academic side over there makes for a great mixture.”

Day believes that the city has limited itself to local academic institutions and a narrow plan when it comes to Academic Village and called for a broader perspective on what should be done with the land.