Luncheon examines North Fort Myers’ renaissance
North Fort Myers has an opportunity at a renaissance, but it will take leaders from business, government and residents and patience for that to happen.
That is what featured speakers said Friday as the North Fort Myers Civic Association presented its Renaissance Campaign Kickoff Luncheon at Capt’n Fishbones Restaurant at the Shell Factory.
While leaders of the civic association have lamented the area’s apathy, they couldn’t complain on this day as the Dolphin Room was nearly packed, with all five county commissioners in attendance as well as many business leaders.
Civic Association President Michael Land started by handing out plaques to Shell Factory owner Tom Cronin and to the management at Carter-Pritchett, the company that allowed the civic association to place billboards promoting North Fort Myers as the land of opportunity.
Land laid out the problems as did the three speakers at the event, Greg Stuart of Stuart Urban Design, John Talmage, economic development consultant and commissioner Brian Hamman: Complacency, 200 commercial vacancies, and a dwindling civic association membership.
However, they also expressed confidence that North Fort Myers can have a renaissance if the area plays its cards right. For example, the Hancock Square owners are looking to renovate the place in hopes of drawing a Marshall’s and/or Ross’s to the area.
Greg Stuart said one of the weaknesses is that the population doesn’t have much buying power in a community where there are too many square feet of retail space chasing a limited amount of money because of how people view the area, real or imagined.
“The perception that lenders have is they see obsolete plazas and shopping centers, and the housing is old and mobile, and they believe we can’t compete. The problem is historical perception,” Stuart said.
But he also saw many advantages in location, as North Fort Myers is within seven miles of hospitals and government buildings while other important places are within a few miles.
“It’s starting to happen. You’re starting to implement things by getting the commissioners involved,” Stuart said. “With strong leadership, the sky is the limit.”
Talmadge, whose background is in demographics and economics, advised those in North Fort Myers to know their area. He said 85 percent of all business investment is demographic driven.
He also said that it’s difficult to determine demographics when you have population numbers that are all over the place. Depending on where you look, the population of North Fort Myers is between 39,407 and 56,778.
“It doesn’t matter what number you choose, just pick one,” Talmadge said, who added the North has great advantages such as having twice the national average in quality of life and that the area spends 32 percent of its income on food-related services.
Hamman shared having to drive to work from Cape Coral every day for a decade, seeing the same empty storefronts and knowing he had to do something about it.
On Tuesday, the county commissioners approved a market assessment to get data to help revitalize North Fort Myers. The assessment will start in the area between Pondella and the riverfront between the 41s.
Hamman also said there were other plans in the queue, including the four-laning of Littleton Road and the connection of Littleton and Kismet Parkway, as well as the new library.
“John Powell left behind a legacy here 143 years ago,” Hamman said. “It’s up to us to make sure we leave a legacy of North Fort Myers behind for the next generation.”
Most who were there left confident North Fort Myers could do it.
“It’s nice to know everyone is so enthused about what’s happening in North Fort Myers. All five commissioners were here and what they did to approve the study shows they care about North Fort Myers,” said Pam Cronin.
“We stirred up some interest and maybe some participation by the community. Expansion has gone eastward instead of north and we have to turn that around,” Land said. “Hopefully we can become a destination and not a conduit between Fort Myers and Cape Coral.”
“I want to see that study. Something needs to be done, but it has to be done in a thoughtful way,” said Jeff Tumbarello, a commercial real estate broker. “I think the people at Hancock Square are looking for anchor tenants.”