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Locals hope president’s visit will result in economic benefit

By Staff | Feb 14, 2009

Now that Air Force One has left Fort Myers behind, and the national press corps has moved on from President Barack Obama’s visit Tuesday to Southwest Florida to the next 24-hour news cycle, local government leaders and residents are left to wonder — what next?
Obama came to town to push the federal economic stimulus plan in an area hit hard by the economic crisis. The House on Friday duly passed the $787 billion measure designed to jump start the economy, with the Senate later approving the measure 60-38.
Obama expects to sign the economic recovery bill into law on Monday, but local leaders are still unsure of exactly how or when stimulus funds will flow into an area plagued with the highest foreclosure rate in the country in 2008 and 10 percent unemployment.
“It was a very good sign that the economic conditions of Southwest Florida rose to the level of attaining the attention of President Obama,” said State Rep. Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral.
Aubuchon said he has been focusing on grabbing stimulus funds for transportation infrastructure projects, but exactly how much of the $1.35 billion allotted for Florida road projects will make its way to Southwest Florida is still unclear.
Cape Coral Mayor Jim Burch attended an informal meeting of the Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization Friday to discuss federal requirements tied to the stimulus funds.
“By the end of next week we’ll have a pretty good idea of what we can get out of it,” Burch said.
Besides road projects, Burch would like to see stimulus funds find their way to the stymied utilities expansion project, which has received a series of up and down votes by the Cape Coral City Council in recent months, the latest of which indefinitely suspended work on the project.
The UEP is designed to bring water, irrigation, and sewer utilities to different Cape neighborhoods. The latest areas targeted by the UEP were the SW 6/7 and the North 1-8 areas. Many council members who voted against the UEP said they didn’t want to burden homeowners with assessments and fees during a difficult economic time.
“Our utility projects are exactly what the stimulus is for. They’re shovel-ready projects,” said Burch, who attended Obama’s town hall meeting Tuesday.
One city council member, however, prefers to see any federal funds spent on the facility expansion project, designed to install plants and increase utility capacity.
“If we give money to the UEP it only benefits that area. If we can get stimulus funds for the FEP then we can spread the benefits over a broader base,” said Councilmember Bill Deile.
As stimulus funds flow into Florida, state and local leaders will be jockeying for position to bring them to their cash-strapped districts, counties, and cities.
“It’s going to be a hard-scrabble fight to get what we need,” Deile said.
While local governments adopt a wait- and-see approach to discover how the economic recovery package will help them, some Cape Coral residents are likely to see some concrete relief.
The stimulus package includes the following provisions:
n A $400 credit for each worker making $75,000 per year or less ($800 for dual-earner couples making $150,000 or less).
n An $8,000 credit for first-time home buyers making less than $75,000, as well as the elimination of state and local sales and excise taxes for automobile purchasers making less than $125,000.
n An extra 20 weeks of unemployment benefits.
Even though the economic recovery package’s future effect on Southwest Florida remains murky, Aubuchon said Obama’s visit leaves behind an aura of positive feelings that is just as essential as cold hard cash in turning the economy around.
“I believe it’ll have a lasting effect to the extent that belief is widespread. There is quite a bit of private capital that is sitting on the sidelines waiting for a sign that a turnaround is imminent,” Aubuchon said.