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Lee County job news bleak

By Staff | Sep 20, 2008

The Cape Coral-Fort Myers metro area had the worst job growth among comparable U.S. metropolitan areas over the past year, according to a study released earlier this month that ranks cities based on their ability to create and sustain jobs and economic growth.

The Milken Institute/Greenstreet Real Estate Partners Best Performing Cities Index recorded the Cape area’s job growth from March 2007 to March 2008 as -5.72 percent, giving it a rank of 200th out of 200 metro areas.

On the heels of the study came more bad news in the form of a report released Friday from the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, which revealed Lee County’s unemployment rate for August stood at 9 percent.

Statistics from the Milken study tell the story of the local economy’s rise and fall along with the housing market in recent years.

From 2001 to 2006, when builders had more jobs than they could handle and speculation in the real estate market ran rampant, the Cape Coral-Fort Myers metro area ranked first in the growth of wages and salaries. But as the housing bubble began to burst, the skyrocketing growth in the local economy slowed to a crawl. The area ranked 188th in job growth from 2006 to 2007, according to the Milken study.

“If you look at what was driving the economy, it was mainly due to population growth, the housing industry, and then the ripple effect to the service industry — all of these areas grew significantly,” said Armen Bedroussian, a research economist with Milken and a co-author of the study.

Bedroussian said a rise in high-tech industries in some cities was able to offset the drop-off in the housing market.

“In the case of Cape Coral and a lot of the coastal cities in Florida, that didn’t happen,” Bedroussian said. He also emphasized the importance of high-tech industries in growing an economy.

“High-tech is very important for regional job growth — it creates higher paying jobs, it generates higher forms of wealth,” he said.

With so much of the local economy dependent on housing, some construction industry leaders recognize the need to diversify the economy by attracting other industries.

“I think it’s dangerous to perpetuate Cape Coral as a bedroom community,” said Scott Hertz, president and owner of Powell Construction. “I realize that the construction industry in and of itself isn’t a long-term thing.”

Hertz said state and local governments should offer tax incentives to attract high-tech and bio-tech firms to the area.

“You only need to get one or two good companies and they can be a magnet for other companies. It creates a self-generating cycle,” Hertz said.

The Cape area spearheaded a trend among Florida metro areas. All but three Florida metro areas dropped in the overall Milken rankings from last year. The Cape Coral-Fort Myers area fell the furthest, plummeting to 120th out of 200 cities after being ranked 13th in 2007.

Bedroussian attributed the decline among Florida cities to decreased travel and tourism spending among Americans in addition to the struggling housing market.