Cape’s economic development initiatives offer new kinds of aid
By DREW WINCHESTER
As Louis McQuaid has done business in 35 different cities around the United States, he’s traversed any number of loopholes and obstructions while getting his various businesses off the ground, usually fighting his way through the process that any potential new business must face while trying to open the doors.
It was a surprise for McQuaid, then, while working with the city’s Economic Development Office that those same processes that are usually maddening were easy, succinct and most of all, friendly.
“It was amazing how they helped, how they walked me through the process,” McQuaid said. “A lot of the time you don’t get all the information you need and you’re forced to go back over and over again. They told me everything I had to do at once, and I wasn’t walking away with half the information.”
McQuaid opened “We Roll” — a roll-your-own tobacco shop — in Coral Pointe last October.
He employs 16 people at his shop, and 45 people total at the various “We Roll” shops across Lee County.
McQuaid has since moved his base of operations to his Cape Coral store, and lives in the Cape now, too.
“Cape Coral has the kind of people I like. They work every day and they work hard for things they have. It’s wonderful here,” he added.
“We Roll” is the type of business the city’s EDO hopes to attract. Not because it sells tobacco, but because officials are trying to become not only more business friendly, but they’re trying to cater to businesses of all size.
Acting Economic Development Director and Assistant City Manager Carl Schwing called small businesses the “bread and butter” of their efforts, which have been refocused and redefined in the last five months.
Just shy of a complete overhaul, Cape Coral’s EDO has been rolling out a whole host of new ideas and practices to hopefully grow, and encourage, business in the city.
They’ve trying to implement their new mantra: Your timeline is our timeline.
“We’re entirely different now,” Schwing said. “We have a different culture and different attitude. We want to do what it takes.”
Cape Coral’s tax base is overwhelmingly reliant on residential property taxes, as roughly 92 percent of all the city’s tax dollars fall to homeowners.
Staying focused, Schwing said, the city should be able to grow its commercial tax base 25 – 35 percent over the next 20 years, putting the city more in line with what many consider a healthy mix of commercial and residential.
The EDO has put several new pieces in place to help achieve that goal.
The city has begun offering customized financial assistance packages to developers, floated the option of waiving change-of-use impact fees for 18 months and put a “customer service advocate” in place who walks potential business owners and developers through the process of bringing their dollars to the Cape.
The customized financial incentives are unique to Cape Coral, Schwing said, because the EDO has tried to shy away from the “cut- and-dried” formula that other communities offer.
While the EDO is just as excited for large projects, small business will lead to other small business development, Schwing said.
“Over the long term, we believe 80 percent of economic development is going to come from business that’s already here,” he said. “We needed to find ways to help small business get into business faster. They grow and add employees and grow from the inside. That’s key for our long-term economic future. There’s strength in numbers.”
The EDO will launch its “New Business Chats” at City Hall next week, the first of a series of monthly forums aimed at newly licensed businesses in the city. Business owners will have a chance to hear speakers talk about common challenges facing the small business. Speakers will not be city staff, but instead will come from Florida Gulf Coast University and the Small Business Development Council.
A Business Assistance Expo is set for March 12, which will bring together local resources for anyone interested in launching or starting a business.
The Community Redevelopment Agency will have a presence at the expo, with staff on hand to answer questions about what it takes to open a business in Cape Coral’s downtown.
CRA Economic Development Manager Helen Ramey said CRA staff’s job is to be facilitators, to point people in the right direction, to give them what they need to succeed as business owners in the downtown district.
“When someone came to us with a problem, we always looked for a solution,” she said. “We always felt we were the business advocates of the CRA. While we can be rather informal at times, anyone that needs something, we always try to assist them.”
Ramey said the CRA is walking “arm in arm” with the EDO, and that communication between the offices has grown by leaps and bounds recently.
The “Your timeline is our timeline” mantra also has been adopted by the CRA, Ramey said, especially now that the city, and the country, struggles out of the economic downturn.
“There’s not a lot of capital available, so a lot of these new business people are self-funded. It’s their dime we’re on, and we should give the utmost in customer service,” Ramey said. ” ‘How can we help you? How can we assist you?’ “
Louis McQuaid said that small business is the true pulse of the community; he hires local people who live and work in the Cape. Some are unskilled labor, others are working a job to get through school or alongside another job they may be working.
McQuaid said it wasn’t long after he opened that members of the city’s police and fire departments stopped by to say hello, introduce themselves, and let him know they were available if he needed anything.
It was just something else that McQuaid said came a surprise to him, as he’d never had any public safety personnel stop by to say hello when he opened his doors.
“The mayor should be proud of all the people representing the city in those areas,” he said. “Everyone has done an excellent job.”
For more information about Cape Coral’s Economic Development efforts, visit www.bizcapecoral.com , or call 574-0444.