'Madden Research Loop' promises to provide jobs, drive economy
Mention Southwest Florida to any tourist or snowbird and it would no doubt conjure visions of beautiful beaches, abundant wildlife, and sun-drenched landscapes.
For people in the real estate industry, Southwest Florida represents a kind of failed boom-town, a place where fortunes have been made, squandered, and made again.
These are the signposts of our region, the two legs of an unsteady “stool” that has been close to collapse over the last few years.
Red drift algae, the scarcely breathing construction industry, and poor water quality are but few of the battles Southwest Florida has faced, and lost, in recent memory.
Now, Lee County business leaders, politicians, and investors are looking for new avenues and new identities for the county, none of which have anything to do with the gaggle of struggling real estate agents or tourists caked with suntan oil.
The so-called “Madden Research Loop”, a new development at Southwest Florida International Airport, is being built to lure bio-tech companies to the region and, hopefully, nurture a new industry in the process.
As a joint effort between the Board of County Commissioners and the Port Authority, the “Madden Project” as it’s being called, is the third and final leg of a new stool that includes the airport and FGCU.
Commissioners approved the ground lease of 25 acres on airport property to develop the project, with the option to develop an additional 125 acres in the future if the project proves successful.
There are similar projects like this around the state of Florida, and county commissioners thought now would be the perfect opportunity to try their hand at bringing bio-tech to Lee.
“This is our opportunity to develop our own cluster campus of life science type businesses,” said Commission chair Ray Judah. “The Madden Group will really allow us to proceed, to help us attract these life science companies.”
The Madden Group is owned by John Madden, a Colorado-based developer who owns a home on Captiva Island.
The $500 million development will feature 275,000 square feet of office space, four buildings, a parking garage and easy access for visiting scientists and top-level executives.
The project’s close proximity to both the airport and the university was the key factor in moving forward with its development.
“The synergy potential is unbelievable,” Judah continued. “The ease of access to the airport, the opportunity for employment, and the opportunity of synergy between area schools and companies… it really raises the level of graduate work and employment opportunities.”
Ground breaking is tentatively scheduled for fall, but could easily spill over into spring depending on the Army Corps of Engineers, which has final approval over the construction process.
The first phase of the project will create 500 new jobs, with an additional 800 jobs “in the building,” according to a representative of Briggs and Rogers, the PR firm handling the development.
While the potential tenants have not been announced, Briggs and Rogers reports that things “are going very, very well,” and filling the new development will not be problem once complete.
With all lights seemingly going green, there seems to be little doubt as to whether the project will actually be a success.
A statewide bio-science industry “focus” organization called BioFlorida, thinks the project will not only be a success, but will truly change the face of southwest Florida.
“The timing is perfect,” said Bill Knab, BioFlorida’s local chair. “To grow a successful life science cluster you need three ingredients: a university hook up, a place for the businesses to locate, and access to capital. We have all three.”
The Southwest chapter of BioFlorida is somewhat new, as Knab felt the area needed to bring together a “networking conduit” for the bio-tech industry. The advent of the Madden Project more or less made it a foregone conclusion a chapter was needed.
“When I saw everything that was going on, it made so much sense to start a chapter,” Knab said. “We never had a focus or a place to put additional companies in. The Madden Project will do that.”
Whether the project will be a success remains to be seen, as the true test of its possible fortune probably won’t be decided until the project is up and running.
As it stands, it’s a win-win for the County Economic Development office, which sees the project as being squarely in its long-term vision for the county.
Even if the project were a failure, it would have little effect on the population growth. According to Jennifer Berger, communication manager for the development office, population growth was higher in 2007 than any year in the previous decade. If it proves to be a success, then the sky would be the limit on attracting new companies to the area.
“We’re very focused on a diversification effort. We see the need have a diverse economic base,” Berger said. “We’re looking at target industries that will bring in high-skill and high-wage jobs. We’re very excited about the project, it’s the exact type of thing we like to see in Southwest Florida.”
Berger talked about the potential “trickle down effect” of the Madden Project, and echoed Judah’s sentiments on the resulting synergy, saying FGCU and the project will go hand in hand.
If things work out like all vested parties hope, the future could indeed be bright for Lee County, and all of Southwest Florida.
Suntan lotion, spring training, and condos might actually share space with pharmacology, bio-engineering, and agro-sciences.
“When we’re marketing the area we look for success stories in the area,” Berger added. “We’re seeing a lot of interest in Lee County. We’re optimistic about the county’s future.”