What We Need
Our poll of community leaders turned up 10 advances that can make Southwest Florida an even better place to live and work.
Water quality was high on the list of things we need to keep an eye on according to our survey.
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One of the great joys of our jobs at Gulfshore Life is that people often loop us in at the beginning stages of exciting projects. We hear about restaurants months before they open (see p. 91) and know about the newest developments, the latest big hire or the important new acquisition before everyone else.
But those are only projects in the works or moves already made. Lately, we’ve been thinking a lot about what’s not out there. What are the projects, ideas and innovations that could make our little corner of the world even better?
And while we certainly have our own opinions, we wanted to hear from the decision-makers, builders and influencers. So, in late August, we sent an email out to more than 200 of the most influential people in our area asking a simple question: What does Southwest Florida need?
The answers ranged from fairly obvious to insightful, from super serious to fun and funny. What follows is a snapshot of those responses—the 10 things our business, governmental and cultural leaders think we need the most. Plus, some of our favorite fun or off-the-wall answers (and a few head-scratchers).
1. Inter-county cooperation
We media folks tend to think of Lee and Collier counties as one big interconnected mass of humanity topping nearly 1 million and counting. But the truth is, outside of Interstate 75 and Southwest Florida International Airport, the idea of a unified “Southwest Florida” is a bit more fiction than fact. Things couldn’t be more different about Cape Coral and Naples, Fort Myers and Golden Gate Estates. Heck, even Marco Island and Sanibel Island share little outside of being surrounded by water.
But “Southwest Florida” represents a needed way of thinking, our respondents say. The only way to be competitive with major metropolitan areas in the state, while at the same time preserving the differences each community treasures, is through cooperation.
- “We need to think about dotted-line alignments that respond to strategic needs rather than constituencies. Development challenges in Southwest Florida require a response that acknowledges and accommodates (our) economic, demographic and cultural diversity. Standing alone, our companies, organizations, schools and local governments have neither the resources nor perspective to accomplish strategic goals.” Cathleen Morgan, Lee County School Board member
- “(We need) more of a regional outlook and perspective. Too many people draw the lines and look from only their city or county border perspectives rather than what is best for Southwest Florida. How can we partner together?” Sandy Stilwell, CEO of Stilwell Enterprises & Restaurant Group
- “(We need) government leadership that will promote regional relationships from all sectors of our communities, and (to) support an improved public relations program called: ‘Choose Us.’” Lavigne Kirkpatrick, chair of the Florida Board of Nursing
2. Aging issues
The area that makes up Southwest Florida has easily one of the highest concentrations of seniors in the world. So it makes sense that people are going to be concerned about how that will impact quality of life for everyone. It also makes the area a great place to experiment with ideas on how to best serve aging Americans going forward, both in terms of needed services and keeping them integrated into daily life and the economy for longer periods of time.
But before we can become a model for other areas on aging issues, we have to take a hard look at what is available currently and where there are holes in the system.
- “Collier County is the only county in the State of Florida that does not have any type of senior access center to provide information, services and programs as well as opportunities for seniors and their caregivers to socialize, meet with various agencies and find answers to a multitude of questions and problems.” Sallie Williams, owner of The Williams Consulting Group
- “Southwest Florida is twice the national average in over age 65 population. As the economy rebounds and we grow again, we will continue to be a service economy servicing a senior and retired population in addition to tourism. Retirees and seniors come here to live and thrive, not to vegetate and die. We should embrace aging as a key part of economic development and become the national laboratory on vibrant living for seniors. New products, services, programs and technology should be test-marketed here as we embrace aging as a key economic engine.” Jim Nathan, CEO of Lee Memorial Health System
- “The question is, ‘Who do you call to find out what’s available?’ Everything is reactive when there is an issue already. The more we educate our community about services before they have a need, the better service we’ll be able to provide. So we are starting a senior housing industry consortium to help educate about what things are available.” Vicky Tracy, director of The Arlington
3. Diversified economy
If we can channel James Carville for a minute, “It’s a diversified economy, stupid.” Growing our regional economy is definitely on a lot of people’s minds. But more important than just adding jobs in already thriving disciplines, such as construction and tourism, our respondents pointed to the need to attract more companies in non-service sectors, such as manufacturing, or bring more corporate headquarters to the area, such as Hertz.
This is obviously a lot easier said than done. But there is a strong belief this will help raise the tide under all the boats in our economic harbor. Others think that a diversified economy means looking at the diversity of the people, not just the businesses.
- “We need a better business climate other than tourism, and perhaps Hertz will bring that. If this market could be more business-oriented, then the entire market would prosper.” Elliott Singer, managing director of Fairview Advisors
- “(We need to) recognize that there is a great deal more to our local economy than tourism and construction. What about small manufacturers who build products and distribute them throughout the country and world? What about medical training and delivery of those services? What about small, local agricultural producers who serve local markets?” Thomas Scott, Lee County School Board member
- “If we want this community to continue to thrive, we must focus well beyond adding technology, efficient production processes and innovative products, new golf courses, stores and malls. It can be argued that none of these approaches will add significant measurable improvement to our lifestyle if everyone isn’t included, given respect and a fair chance. The big picture is that when we leverage difference and demonstrate cultural competence—and it is demonstrated in our business practices—we are in a better position to take advantage of market trends, demographic shifts and business opportunities.” Gail Williams, chief diversity officer for Hodges University
4. Water quality
If there is one natural resource we are very concerned about, it’s the water along the Gulfshore. But not just the quality of the water we drink. No, we understand just how important crystal-clear waters on and off shore are for our biggest economic driver—tourism. This has been an issue we’ve been monitoring for a while (see Gulfshore Life February 2012), but the record rainfall we’ve received in the past year has brought it to a head.
Or rather to a mouth, specifically the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River, where releases of nutrient-polluted water from Lake Okeechobee end up after the Army Corps of Engineers opens the flood gates. The water has caused all sorts of havoc for marine life in the brackish edges of the river’s ecosystem and led to algae blooms and fish kills, especially around Sanibel.
- “What does Southwest Florida need? One, clean water. I’m tired of the Corps of Engineers flushing their toilets in our direction. Two, clean water.” Marty Harrity, Sanibel Island City Council member
- “As a boater, in my opinion, we need to both improve the (inter-coastal waterway) as well as finally address the water flow issues into the Everglades. I witnessed firsthand the recent issues pertaining to the release of water from Lake Okeechobee on a recent boating trip to Punta Gorda; it was distressing to see how brown the open waters were.” Larry Sacher, Marco Island City Council member
- “We need to insure our beaches and estuaries remain clean and healthy. We, not they, need to construct a filtering system for the Caloosahatchee River in order to clean the water before it gets to us. By we, I mean us folks of the South who are most affected, both by our health and our economy, by the pollution. We cannot wait for the state/federal government to do it for us. By the time they clean the lake it will be too late for us. We need to do what we can and that is to take the Caloosahatchee and allow it to meander the way it once did so it can clean itself. In the meantime, let the state/fed government clean (Lake Okeechobee).” Clyde Butcher, photographer
5. Convention center
It was one of the many proposals for how to use the vacant Renaissance Village property in downtown Naples. It’s the subject of debate in Lee County, where the Harborside Event and Convention Center seems certain to be, if not replaced, at the very least given the Extreme Makeover: Convention Center treatment as part of the new development in downtown Fort Myers.
The uses for a new center seem limitless. Wouldn’t need to set up the big temporary tents for art events, could attract new convention business by piggy-backing our beautiful beaches and abundant golf.
- “The best asset to add in the Naples area would be a mini or boutique convention center, preferably at the old Renaissance [Village] site that is vacant now, but under new ownership. A center would provide the capability of doing art and antique fairs in a permanent building (as opposed to a tent), convention space for smaller regional companies, auto shows, etc.” Bill Meek, owner of Harmon-Meek Gallery
- “After serving on the Convention and Visitors Board in Oshkosh, it was clear that conventions helped the hotels and restaurants. Once people are here for conventions and exposed to the community, business owners might decide to locate here, people might chose to purchase a condo or house. Conventions are good for the economy. Many nonprofits who have large fundraisers have mentioned that they cannot find places large enough—a convention center could help that.” Eileen Connolly-Keesler, president and CEO of Community Foundation of Collier County
- “(We need) a large convention center to host much larger events. The area is perfect for such events, but additional hotel space would have to be built near the site. This type of business is not being pursued and left to go to Tampa, Orlando, Miami, etc.” Harlan J. Dam, president of Imperial Golf Estates Homeowners Association