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83 New Businesses, and More On the Way to Cape Coral

From the News-Press, Originally posted on February 16, 2008

Economy gripes are common these days.

But in the last three months of 2007, there were 83 new businesses that moved to Cape Coral. That doesn’t even account for the home-based businesses, which make up 65 percent of the total operations here.

Still, the city wants more.

Mike Jackson, director of Economic Development, is kicking off a new, national ad campaign to get the word out that businesses can flourish here — and workers can have fun doing it.

“Work. Play. Repeat. Now do both in the same place.”

That’s the slogan. It’s designed to promote the city’s tenant-ready commercial properties and market niches, as well as the waterfront lifestyle. It’s set to be unleashed later this year at business conventions, in trade magazines and in a television commercial airing on CNBC and MSNBC.
“When people think of Florida, they think of retirement and old people,” Jackson said.

“So when I go to these conventions in Chicago or other big cities, people are always surprised to hear that we’re the fourth-fastest-growing city in the country, and that our median age is 43. We want to try to change those perceptions.”

Specifically, the target is the smaller businesses that can afford to quickly pick up and move, and for whom quality of life is a big factor in where they do business.

Elmer Tabor, owner of Wonderland Realty, said the draw for many new business owners is the sunshine. But the Cape is also attractive because the market hasn’t fallen completely flat, he said.

“I always like to ask people why they moved here, and it’s almost always, ‘I was sick of shoveling snow,’” Tabor said. “And regardless of what the economy is, we still have a greater place to live than Ohio or Michigan or Minnesota. Southwest Florida still provides jobs, still provides growth. We’re in tough economic times, but we’re not near as bad as some places.”

Northern areas are dealing with redevelopment, and what is commonly referred to as “The Brain Drain,” in which younger workers move out after being educated in search of better jobs. In the Cape, the challenge is more first-time, smart development rather than redevelopment. Jackson said his office is constantly trying to find solutions to the fact that 90 percent of the city’s developable land is pre-platted residential. When the city was first built, it was broken up into small, residential-sized plots. For years, anyone could build a house almost anywhere they chose.

“The result is not only that utilities and services have to catch up,” Jackson said. “But also we are running into a commercial land use shortage.”

In a future land use analysis report, Jackson indicates that if the city does nothing, it will face a 2,526-acre shortage of commercial land by the time the population is built-out, roughly in about 60 years. Annexation of the Zemel property would reduce that shortage to 1,754 acres, but it won’t eliminate it. To combat this, Jackson is proposing to convert residential land use to commercial/industrial, increase annexations for commercial/industrial development, increase commercial/industrial densities, increase the size of existing commercial/industrial zones and acquire and develop parcels for commercial/industrial uses.

But some might wonder why the city would push for more commercial land when roughly 430,000 square feet of office space is currently vacant. But Jackson sees that vacancy not as an omen of a stagnant economy, but rather a draw for new business owners.

“New companies generally don’t want to move in to a place where they’re going to have to deal with the hassle of building their new office space,” he said. “They want to go somewhere it’s already waiting for them.”

Another tool his office is using is the Cape Coral Prospector Web site, at bizcapecoralgis.com, which was launched in December. With just a few clicks, interested parties can research brokers, building vacancies, see satellite and interior pictures, check out the structure’s proximity to other businesses as well as bus stops and traffic lights.

“We want to make it as easy as possible for people,” Jackson said. “It’s like free market research.”

While it will be difficult to measure the city’s direct success with the advertising campaigns and land use restructuring, Tabor said educating people about what Cape Coral is — and isn’t — can only help.

“In the early days in development in Cape Coral, it was the young, gutsy pioneers who came down to establish businesses,” he said. “When they started seeing they could enjoy it, that’s when the retirees started moving in. They brought their money, and then there was a need for younger employment. So we hope that’s a trend that continues, because it really is an overall great place to live.”

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