- 11/19/16


NORTH FORT MYERS, FL -- North Fort Myers' future may lie in its transformation to a "downtown center" with white collar jobs and improved housing inspiring a commercial and cultural renaissance.

North Fort Myers businesses are on the decline and they struggle to kick-start interest from developers. They would like to see a younger crowd moving in, but can't get the businesses in to attract them. Businesses won't invest until they have the younger crowd established. Its a circle the county has been running in for years.

Once the scene of parking lots filled with customers scurrying to a Walmart or the Kash N' Karry grocery, Hancock Bridge Square in North Fort Myers now offers little to lure people with money to spend. The once-thriving 14-acre shopping plaza on U.S. 41, south of Pondella Road, is now the scene of a sweeping array of vacant storefronts, spreading potholes and a depressed truck bay so steeped in stormwater run-off that it has turned into an algae-filled summer swimming hole.

"We were told they're going to rebuild it; they're going to tear it down and build condos; they're going to bring Hancock Bridge Road through," said Debra Gadis, whose salon is the sole business at one end of the complex and one of only five that remain.

There has been no reconstruction, no upgrades, and entering the parking lot in the rainy season is an act of faith that electrical components in one's vehicle are high enough off the ground to navigate steep puddles.

Vacancies are testimony to the simple fact that there isn't enough money in the lower end of North Fort Myers to sustain the number of retail business that can fit along U.S. 41 and its business spur to the east.

"We have a dead plaza in what you can consider a dead area with mobile homes and transients," Gadis said.

An early draft of a county commissioned study of the area between U.S. 41 and Business 41, from the Caloosahatchee River to Pondella Road says the future of North Fort Myers may lie in its transformation from a center of struggling shopping plazas and long-abandoned franchise stores into a downtown-style business center spawning a decidedly white collar population of millennials with money to spend on their lifestyles.

Waiting for people with disposable income to simply move in and start spending hasn't worked. Today's residents of the trailer parks and bungalows that fill the side streets in the area spend their incomes on survival.

"Many once-thriving businesses are in financial distress, vacancies are visibly prevalent and many properties are for sale," said the draft report from a consortium headed by DCG CORPLAN CONSULTING, a New Jersey-based economic development consulting firm.

The preliminary report was made available to county officials last week.

"North Fort Myers should have emerged as a target for investment," the consultants claim. "But investor interest is lagging."

Natural geography contributes an "obvious site advantage," to North Fort Myers, as the twin U.S. 41 highways bring traffic through its commercial core, providing access to the Caloosahatchee and Edison bridges that frame a potentially idyllic riverfront expanse.

It's a scene steeped in potential, offering North Shore Park as a riverfront destination. The views, though, are obscured by a patchwork of businesses, some gritty, some potential jewels, and many ravaged by time after the death of an entrepreneur's dream.

The preliminary study predicts creation of office-oriented businesses that offer the prospect of "modest growth" in retail business. It envisions a healthy increase in white collar occupations as the area's savior.

Thriving businesses staffed by a millennial generation workforce would create demand for housing and services, the study suggests. The goal is "growth in management, business, science and arts occupations, helping the market for educational services, information technology, healthcare and real estate businesses, among others."

Existing businesses, even those not struggling, see a benefit to new businesses luring people, even to new competitors.

"We would love to see some offices and businesses come up, it makes sense," said John Browning, who operates the Three Fishermen restaurant in the Best Western Hotel on North Key Drive. "You're not only adjacent to downtown Fort Myers, but property prices would be much less than over there."

Browning, a veteran Lee County restaurateur, says the Best Western was booked "earlier and fuller" for the tourist season than in recent years. He sees creation of a healthy permanent economy in North Fort Myers as something that will help all businesses.

"Season is going to happen, no matter what," he said. "Creating destinations is huge in marketing areas."

Bringing a permanent population to North Fort Myers would augment those already living in waterfront towers and a large gated community on Hancock Bridge Parkway.

"Not a lot of folks live around there," said District 4 County Commissioner Brian Hamman, who represents the area. "Folks travel through from North Fort Myers and Cape Coral to downtown."

Hamman, who requested the study, noted that many of the vacant storefronts were vacant even before the recession. He says, however, even the "really great suggestions require some discussion of how deeply government should get involved.

"I'm on the limited government side of the spectrum," Hamman said. "Government has a real role to build infrastructure and cut red tape to create the right conditions so that private enterprises would want to buy and invest in the area."

Business owners thirst for a year-round population that would drive business 12 months a year.

David White, a Massachusetts transplant, operates a combined mattress store and dry cleaning depot in a plaza on the western side of Cleveland Avenue because he thought it fills a need that isn't necessarily seasonal.

"I thought (U.S.) 41 would help with the mattress business, but it needs more," White said, noting the slow business in the off-season. "It's because of who lives in the area."

If grand plans to remake what has been marketed as "the opportunity side of the river" gain a toehold, displacement would appear inevitable.

DCG CORPLAN, which is being paid by the county, says county property tax revenues would be "significantly higher" if a new population replaced the area's mobile home parks and bungalows, now "located on sites that, if redeveloped, would command higher and better uses."

The consultants see a spin-off effect that could see the tired dwellings of the Cabana City neighborhood translated into a trendy "niche" housing neighborhood featuring "old-Florida charm."

Farther down Cleveland Avenue, in a shop in a plaza originally built by Publix Super Markets Inc., Mike Vargeson survived the housing bust at his store, Colortile, a North Fort Myers presence for nearly a quarter century that he and his daughter have owned and operated since emigrating from England a decade ago.

The store sells flooring and wall materials that are a step up from the contractor grade materials used in a lot of new construction, and faces competition from discounters dealing in factory seconds. His market is people building their own homes and new buyers or long-term residents who want upgrades.

His base includes residents of the Moody River community and the riverfront condos.

The area near his shop, located adjacent to the Hope Hospice thrift center, have not been able to lift his business completely out of years of economic stagnation.

"It's starting to come back, but slowly," Vargeson said. "These sort of people don't have the money to pay for the more expensive things."

What draft report says North Fort Myers can absorb:

Consultant's proposed steps:

North Fort Myers demographics:

Source: DCG CORPLAN, draft North Myers Market Assessment study, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics