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Candidates share views on downtown redevelopment

By Staff | Aug 22, 2009

Editor’s Note: Each week, The Breeze will ask candidates for city council their views on an issue of interest to the voters. Each candidate is asked the same question in a phone interview. This week’s question is: What are your views on redevelopment in Cape Coral’s downtown area? What is your vision and what are your plans for the area?

Redevelopment in Cape Coral’s downtown area has remained elusive during the city’s boom and bust cycles alike.
This year’s City Council candidates generally agree that redevelopment needs to happen in the area, but the size and scope of incentives that can be offered by the city to developers has been drastically reduced because of the recession.

District 1
District 1 candidate Jim Martin, a 77-year-old retired aerospace engineer, said he supports the efforts of the Cape Coral Community Redevelopment Agency, the government entity charged will redeveloping the area.
“I think they’re going in the right direction,” Martin said.
As the economy turned sour, the CRA has focused its attention on the smaller, existing businesses in its boundaries, instead of trying to woo large-scale developments as it did during the construction boom.
Martin applauded the CRA’s facade grant program and its efforts to have underground transmission lines instead of overhead lines run through the area. The trolley rides through the CRA which began earlier this year, however, might not be sustainable, he said.
“I’m not sure that’s going to be a full win-win situation unless they can do it citywide,” Martin said.
The CRA nearly tripled in size June 8 when council members unanimously voted to expand its boundaries to include the defunct Golf Course. The CRA was contained within District 1 before the expansion, but now extends into District 4.
Martin’s opponent in the District 1 race, 51-year-old construction consultant Marty McClain, also supports the CRA, and is confident the plan to rehabilitate the golf course will be successful.
The CRA is hoping use the nonprofit Trust for Public Lands as an intermediary buyer to acquire the course from the current owners, Florida Gulf Venture.
Negotiations to purchase the course, however, have been deadlocked since July when Florida Gulf Venture backed out of a purchase agreement with TPL.
But McClain has faith a deal will be reached eventually.
“I think for the betterment of the city itself it would give the city some more as far as being attractive. I think they’ll get that worked out,” McClain said.

Mayor’s race
Incumbent Mayor Jim Burch, a 58 year-old land surveyor and the council’s liaison to the CRA, also is supportive of the CRA’s vision of a more pedestrian-friendly downtown, but said the city needs to work harder to attract developers.
“The CRA itself is a district we need. We can end up having that destination area as we did when Cape Coral was first realized,” Burch said.
One of Burch’s four challengers, however, is not convinced of the CRA’s value to the city.
Former mayor Roger Butler, 74, said little progress has been made by the CRA in recent years.
“They’ve had that vision for many years. A lot of it to me seems like it’s a little far-fetched,” Butler said.
“The City of Cape Coral should take a look at whether the city is getting our bang for our buck down there,” he added.
For fellow challenger John Sullivan, a 66 year-old retired broker/IT consultant, there are more pressing issues with the CRA district.
He said the decade-long saga of overhead versus underground transmission lines in the area needs to end.
The Lee County Electric Cooperative has been trying to install the transmission lines for more than 10 years. LCEC would pay the cost to install overhead lines, but CRA officials say they would be a blight on the area and prefer more costly underground lines.
“One of the first things I’d like to get done is to put that line in. I really don’t care which way it goes but it’s got to go in,” Sullivan said.
Steve Lovejoy, a 51-year-old vice president of a document management company, wants to see the CRA support existing businesses because large-scale projects simply aren’t on the horizon in the current harsh economic climate.
“I would think you would need to focus on small businesses. I don’t see anything big coming down here anytime soon,” Lovejoy said.
Roberto Pizzolongo, a 46-year-old Comcast employee, said the council needs to cut waste in city government to find money to offer incentives to attract developers to the downtown area.
“Once we rejuvenate that area people will come and people will stay instead of heading over the bridge,” Pizzolongo said.

District 4
Incumbent District 4 Councilmember Dolores Bertolini agrees that large projects would have to be delayed until the economy rebounds.
“Unfortunately, right now everything is stagnant because of the economy,” Bertolini said.
She also applauded the CRA’s efforts to help businesses within its boundaries.
“Right now they’re doing a good job with the basics,” Bertolini said.
Her opponent, 53-year-old USCG-licensed captain Chris Chulakes-Leetz, shares Butler’s doubts of the CRA.
“We need to have a discussion as far as the cost-benefit analysis of the overall program,” Chulakes-Leetz said.

District 6
Candidates for District 6 think the CRA’s reach might exceed its grasp.
For Kevin McGrail, a 53-year-old medical technologist, the CRA’s plan to rehabilitate the golf course could run into trouble during such a deep recession.
Florida Gulf Venture shut down the course two years ago due to lack of profitability, and golf courses around the country are in economic trouble.
“I’d be interested myself to see how they’re going to make a financial go of it,” McGrail said.
McGrail also is in favor of underground lines but said he doubts the city has the funds to augment any CRA contribution to install them.
“Burying the electric lines would be ideal, I just don’t know if the city has the funds to do that,” McGrail said.
If McGrail is hesitant about using city funds to help the CRA, one of his District 6 opponents, 67- year-old retired publisher Frank Antos, Jr., is certain there should be none.
“I think due to the economic situation we should really put it on hold,” Antos said of council expenditures in the CRA district.
John Cataldi, Jr., a 69-year-old retired police detective, said large-scale redevelopments are not likely to occur any time soon, and the city should instead offer incentives like reduced impact fees to attract developers whose projects are smaller in size.
“I think what they’re presenting is unreasonable because we don’t have the population to support the big development,” Cataldi said.