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Zimomra sees good news in local economic indicators

By Staff | Nov 26, 2008

When you’re in the city management business, you are constantly keeping your eye on all things economic — and Sanibel City Manager Judie Zimomra is no exception — especially at this time of economic upheaval.

Twice in the past month, Zimomra and her staff have been congratulated by City Council for their diligence in scaling back on public expenditures, including postponement of capital improvement projects, elimination of staff positions, and a 15 percent reduction in minimum salaries for city workers.

“We know that the City of Sanibel is not isolated from the effects of these global, national, state, and regional economic problems,” said Zimomra at City Hall on Monday. “We have to watch all economic indicators very carefully, to gauge their impact or potential impact on our local economy.”

With statistics in-hand, Zimomra ticked off the percentage decreases reported in various sectors of Lee County tourism.

“A 21 percent reduction in the number of visitors to Lee County,” she read. “A 12 percent reduction in visitor expenses per person per day.”

In addition to these dismal numbers reported for the month of September by the Lee County Visitors and Convention Bureau (VCB), arriving passengers at Southwest Florida International Airport is down 20 to 21 percent from the previous year, and Sanibel Causeway traffic is down 10,000 vehicles for the same time period.

Despite the disappointing county-wide and even nationwide numbers, Sanibel hoteliers and businesses are reporting a less grim economic picture, with many already receiving a healthy number of reservations for the upcoming tourist season.

Citing the Lee County VCB report, Zimomra pointed out the reasons why visitors say they chose Lee County for their vacations: A peaceful, relaxing atmosphere was the number one attribute cited by visitors, followed by the white sandy beaches, the warm weather and a clean environment.

“Those are important things that we must protect as a city,” said Zimomra. “They are the priorities where we need to direct our resources, because our economy is based on the reasons that people say they like to come to Sanibel.”

More positive economic news was recently discovered within the pages of the city Planning Department’s recently released Development Permit Activity Report for the fiscal year ending Oct. 1. Thirteen new single family homes were constructed on the island between October 2007 and September 2008, with a total value of nearly $9 million.

“And that figure doesn’t include the cost of the land,” said Zimomra, adding that healthy construction figures were a positive indicator for the local economy. “It shows that Sanibel is still a place where people are willing to invest their money and build their homes.”

There were only two less homes built in Sanibel last year than were built in the previous year, and that was only two less than were built in the year before that, noted Zimomra.

“We are not immune from the national trend, particularly in light of us being near build-out,” she said. “However, the depth of our decline in this category is significantly less than others in our region over the same period.”

In addition to the money spent on new home construction, 39 homeowners invested heavily in major renovations to their existing properties, sinking another $6.8 million into additions and remodels in excess of $42,000.

“Now that the city is getting close to 100 percent build-out, homeowners are investing in their existing properties,” observed Zimomra.

Sanibel property owners have much to be proud of in this time of economic uncertainty, with no more than 10 homes currently on the

foreclosure list.

“It’s a number that’s constantly changing,” said Zimomra, “But it’s an indicator of where we are as a city economically.”

The city checks up on and keeps up with maintenance on homes that are in foreclosure, said Zimomra.

“The last thing we want is to be one of those cities that people drive through and say ‘This looks like it may have been a nice place at one time, but they’ve sure let it go downhill'” she said. “We’ve all been through places like that, and we want to make certain that visitors never have that impression about Sanibel.”

Despite the encouraging construction numbers and hopeful reports from city businesses and hoteliers, Zimomra said that she and the city are dedicated to constricting government and reducing expenses whenever the opportunity presents itself, while promoting the city’s four major priorities: Keeping the city safe, clean, environmentally friendly and fiscally sound.

“Anything that’s not supportive of these four major priorities is something that needs to be re-scrutinized,” said Zimomra, “because these are the things that keep people coming to Sanibel.”

And that’s what the local economy is all about.