In many ways, Fort Myers is a city in flux. Tremendous development downtown is tempered by high-profile crime issues. An October shooting at the popular Zombicon event led to renewed concerns that the years of work trying to make First Street into a facsimile of what Naples created with Fifth Avenue South wasn’t going to work. The formerly popular police chief Doug Baker was fired after an April 2015 wrongful arrest of NFL player Nate Allen.
Yet housing starts are up. New high-rise condominiums are beginning to come online. And there is a general sense that the economic engines of the community might be ready to take off.
In the midst of this, Saeed Kazemi was named city manager after four months of holding the post on an interim basis following the retirement of Billy Mitchell. Born in Iran, Kazemi has lived in the United States for nearly four decades, the last 28 years in the service of either Fort Myers or Lee County.
He was unanimously selected by the city council after a national search, which gives Kazemi the strong belief that he has a mandate for his vision of what Fort Myers can be.
On going from an engineer and public works director to city manager
“Engineers do a lot more than design. There’s a lot of managing process involved. My job before was to implement the visions of the design. Now it’s to implement the visions of the city council. So it’s really the same goals. We are just trying to make Fort Myers a great place to live and work.”
On the mirroring of Fifth Avenue South
“We are really comparable to Sarasota and Naples, but we are about 10 years behind in trying to develop our downtown. We are using almost the same business model. We hired the same planner to create our downtown district as Naples did. They just have a head start. We’ve done exactly what we were supposed to do, but we are only just now starting to really see the fruits of that. It takes time to change something this big.”
On the Zombicon shootings effects on downtown
“If you would have asked me the night after Zombicon what was going to happen to downtown, I would have been really worried. I would have said, ‘Oh my God, this is going to hurt us.’ But we really didn’t see any changes. New Year’s Eve was a success. We had 80,000 people downtown for Art Fest. And the Edison Festival of Light parade had more than 250,000 people. … That really sends a message that people feel safe. Obviously we are still working on it. We have put up a lot of cameras downtown to help. And during all those events we had a police presence that was obvious but not too much.”
On his first priority in office
“The first thing we have to do is hire a permanent police chief. I wasn’t going to do that as interim because I felt like the new city manager should be able to hire his own person for the job. I’m looking for a community-minded person. That’s what we are lacking. You cannot police parts of the community separately; it has to be policed as a whole. Dunbar isn’t the only place with crime.”
On jobs as the main engine to success
“We need to create jobs and economic development. Crime comes with poverty. Those things are hand-in-hand. You cannot just hire police and expect crime to go away. People need jobs. We need light industrial development. And that’s happening in some places on MLK. We just put in a commercial kitchen that employs 50 people. And there is someone putting in 300 units to create good housing for the community. We can’t have a city where houses are either $400,000 or $60,000.”
On keeping Fort Myers’ best from leaving the city
“We are going to bring about a high-tech city here. My kids live in Austin. Why? Have you been there? It’s an amazing place full of high-tech jobs and plenty of opportunities for young people. Fort Myers won’t be Austin, but I see it as a place that we can build this high-tech infrastructure so that some of our kids will come back.”