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North Fort Myers business renaissance depends on community

By Staff | Sep 9, 2015

Driving along the major roads in North Fort Myers shows abandoned strip malls and nearly empty shopping centers. Very few, if any, businesses have been coming in to fill them.

It will take the work of the community, both residents and leaders, to start filling those stores and keeping businesses from going southward or eastward.

That’s what business leaders said during the North Fort Myers Civic Association’s monthly meeting at the Road 41 Grille on North Cleveland Avenue on Friday.

Shane Farnsworth, business development manager with Lee County Economic Development, Pat O’Rourke of the Horizon Council and John Gardner of Lee County Insurance Agency served as the panel at a meeting also attended by County Commissioner Brian Hamman.

Ultimately, the message was to get everyone together to find out what North Fort Myers wants and needs.

“The idea is to get engaged and utilize the commercial corridor steering committee as well as the local organizations, whether they’re business organizations or the Chamber of Commerce and leverage those to help define the vision of the community,” Farnsworth said.

O’Rourke said the group is looking at the unincorporated areas like North Fort Myers, Lehigh and East Fort Myers for outreach on their main corridors with the goal of getting some wins, something North Fort Myers culled in the past year with the openings of Love’s and Tractor Supply.

The main areas of concern are between the 41s from Pondella to the river, Pondella itself, and Pine Island Road/ Bayshore from Weaver’s Corner to Merchant Crossing.

An area of special interest is Hancock Square, which has only a handful of stores open and needs some improvements to its parking lot, which has been subject to runoff from the roadway.

“Cleveland Avenue is the cause. The engineering that was done in 1983 for the drainage has clogged up. Even if we were to do something today with it, it would have to be torn up because it’s not to code,” O’Rourke said.

“The old Kash & Karry building was owned by one person and the rest were owned by others. Nothing could be done with the drainage,” Gardner said.

Further, you can’t see the plaza due to the overgrown trees and other buildings, such as Regions Bank and Perkins.

Farnsworth said it will take time.

“It took time for those stores to become empty, so it will take time to fill or redevelop the sites,” Fransworth said. “We have to start moving forward, and moving collaboratively we can create wins in the community.”

Farnsworth said the vision for the area needs to come from the community, not Lee County. And indeed, some work has been done on that front with a billboard on Bayshore Road that says “Sold on North Fort Myers: The Opportunity Side of the River.”

But Farnsworth said it will take a lot more. Farnsworth said he is starting a website that highlights North Fort Myers, which is expected to be up and running in imminently.

“Don’t rely on someone else like the media. It’s up to us to tell the story and have a platform. It must be led by the community,” Farnsworth said. “When we get a business, let’s wave the flag.”

Michael Land, president of the civic association, said Farnsworth’s plan is good for looking 20 to 30 years down the road. The short-term goal should be to fill the empty stores with anything.

“Even if they’re filled with $10-an-hour jobs, it would end the demoralizing effect these empty stores have on the community and business,” Land said.

Farnsworth said customer service operations are taking a look at the old Sears building at Merchant Crossing, and other businesses are looking at the old big-box stores for back office locations.

Jeff Tumbarello, a residential broker, said North Fort Myers has one distinct advantage: As it is unincorporated, there is one less layer of bureaucracy.

“It causes less brain damage. It’s cheaper to stay here and people overlook that. It’s the easiest place to grow in Lee County. Sell that,” Tumbarello said.

Hamman was interested in what can be done by the river, which aside from Marinatown is under utilized.

“How can we maximize the use of the river to bring people here? We need a game plan. We need creative thinking,” Hamman said.

Farnsworth said there’s potential everywhere, with the rural, suburban and urban areas. It just depends on who or what comes here.

“What are the specific needs of the company? We have the diversity of sites. It will allow us to meet their specific needs,” Farnsworth said. “This is an opportunity for the business community and the residents to coalesce and see great things happen in North Fort Myers.”