Christopher Westley likes to call Southwest Florida the “bubble of happiness.”
As the director of the Regional Economic Research Institute and an economics professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, Westley is an astute observer of the economic health of the region. Westley’s institute publishes a treasure trove of local economic data ranging from taxable sales to airport activity, home sales, construction permits and employment.
He calls Southwest Florida the “bubble of happiness” because the region benefits strongly in times of economic expansion. This stands in contrast to many other areas of the country that aren’t so fortunate.
Still, as the most recent downturn revealed, sometimes economic booms are too much of a good thing. Westley recently shared his insights with the Entrepreneurs Society of America, an organization that brings together entrepreneurs in the Fort Myers and Naples areas for informative monthly meetings.
It’s worth your time to read the institute’s monthly report of economic indicators to keep tabs on which way the economic winds are blowing. The institute also publishes the Lee County Business Climate Survey and the Industry Diversification Report. All the reports are published on the institute’s web site.
How do you protect more than 53,000 acres from future development without spending any government money?
Just ask Al Reynolds, vice president and U.S. sector leader with Stantec, the international engineering and planning firm. He’s the architect of the bold Rural Land Stewardship Area, a development and conservation plan for eastern Collier County he helped create nearly two decades ago.
The program is a transfer-of-development-rights program, where landowners with environmentally sensitive land can earn credits that they can sell to developers in exchange for giving up development rights.
“This was a big experiment, nothing like this had been done before,” Reynolds told a gathering of the Real Estate Investment Society in Fort Myers recently.
Reynolds says the Rural Land Stewardship Area already has protected 53,569 acres from future development. Reynolds says a total of 89,300 acres could be protected by 2025 and 134,000 acres by 2050.
Developers in the rural areas must purchase credits from willing sellers to build homes and commercial buildings. For example, Rural Lands West, a new town in eastern Collier County that is under review, will set aside 12,200 acres for conservation by buying 32,000 credits.
For example, the Rural Lands West plan would put the environmentally sensitive Camp Keais Strand in conservation, a deal that likely could have cost the county $80 million based on current market prices. Now, with the transfer-of-development rights plan, “there’s no cost to the public to do it,” Reynolds says.
You can find out more about the Rural Land Stewardship Area by clicking here.
The economic truth is fleeting, but two experts recently provided some fascinating insights.
One of the benefits of living in Southwest Florida is that the area’s wealth attracts experts who share their insights. They often visit Florida during the winter months, when wealthy seasonal residents are eager to hear their economic prognostications.
Ronald Ryan, the CEO of Ryan ALM who designed many of the Lehman bond indexes, spoke to the CFA Society Naples about the U.S. pension-fund crisis. David Jones, the president and CEO of DMJ Advisors, spoke to the Real Estate Investment Society about the impact of Donald Trump’s election on the markets.
Want to attend events like this in the future? To view the CFA Society Naples’ website, click here. The Real Estate Investment Society’s website is here.
Alex “Pete” Hart knows all about technological disruption.
As the former CEO of Mastercard International, Hart helped make credit-card transactions commonplace. He continues to serve on high-profile corporate boards in Silicon Valley where he’s privy to ideas from some of the sharpest technology minds in the world.
Speaking to a gathering of the CFA Society in Naples, Fla., recently, Hart says digitization is changing every industry, even some you might not expect. “Every business is up for grabs,” Hart warns.
For example, Uber has transformed transportation and Airbnb has upended the hospitality sector. Health care, retail and many other industries will see transformations in automation that will be disruptive, too. “I think we’ll see the robotization of everything,” Hart says, pointing to Amazon’s army of warehouse robots.
The “staggering challenge,” Hart says, will be to figure out how people can continue to work and earn a living despite those changes. “The more technologically facile you are, the more likely you are to work,” he says.
On the financial technology front, Hart says Apple Pay is a precursor to the use of smartphones to pay for goods and services. The biggest challenges facing the electronic-payment industry now are reducing fraud and transaction delays from identification checks.
Governments have an incentive to encourage electronic payments because they can track money for revenue generation. “Mastercard and Visa have been enormous beneficiaries of that,” Hart says.
In addition to his insights on technology and financial services, Hart shared career lessons that started early in humble circumstances in small-town Ohio. Among them:
•Get past your fear of failure. “I’ve failed at so many things,” Hart says.
•We learn the most when we lose. Losing a job or a marriage are learning experiences.
•Things can always get better. Consider: The New England Patriots won the Super Bowl in one of the biggest comeback games in the game’s history.
•Never give up.
If you want to keep up with Randy Henderson, you’d best be flying.
The mayor of Fort Myers and avid pilot recently rattled off the number of private-sector projects underway or on the drawing boards at a recent meeting of the Real Estate Investment Society.
Projects include new residential buildings such as Allure and The Place on First, a Marriott-flagged convention center hotel and a regional technology hub. Henderson says the city will issue a request for proposals soon for the City Pier on the Caloosahatchee River.
In all, Henderson estimates there is $600 million to $700 million worth of private investment in the pipeline. “That’s more in the next four years than in the past 10 years,” he says.
Developer Mainsail is planning build the 12-story convention hotel downtown. “They want to turn some dirt in the second quarter of this year,” Henderson says, noting that Harborside Event Center is also scheduled to be renovated.
The hotel will bring 240 parking spaces, welcome relief for the growing number of visitors to downtown shops, restaurants and events.
Scarcity of parking is a good sign despite the challenges, says Henderson. “We begged for a time we’d have a parking problem,” Henderson chuckles.
A jobs recovery in Southwest Florida brings its own challenges.
Shelton Weeks, the chair of economics and finance at the Lutgert College of Business at Florida Gulf Coast University, recently spoke about the regional economy to the CFA Society Naples, the association of money managers in Southwest Florida.
First, the good news: Nonfarm employment in Southwest Florida is now above the peak in 2006. Wages in construction and hospitality have been rising. What’s more, the share of volatile construction jobs is lower now than it was during the boom. And in Collier County, financial-service employment has surpassed the peak 10 years ago.
“Our markets have really recovered,” Weeks says.
But jobs in leisure and hospitality have surged ahead and an economic downturn could have negative consequences for the area because tourism is highly sensitive to economic cycles. “Our exposure to leisure and hospitality, particularly in Lee, is getting larger,” Weeks warned.
Still, barring an economic downturn, we’re likely to see issues such as housing affordability return to the forefront, especially in Collier County. “It’s a good problem to have,” Weeks says.
Everybody loves winners, especially when they’re entrepreneurs who’ve earned their wins through hard work and perseverance.
More than 650 people gathered at the Naples Grande Beach Resort on Oct. 26 to celebrate the induction of Kathy Bigham and Garrett Richter into the Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame. Junior Achievement teaches the values of free enterprise to school-age children, so it’s vitally important that it celebrate people such as Bigham and Richter to set an example for young people.
Bigham started selling jewelry out of a briefcase and worked as a truck dispatcher to pay for her college education. She founded Bigham Jewelers in Naples in 1995, building it into one of the most successful jewelers in the region.
Richter started his career as a janitor at Mellon Bank and served with the 75th Ranger Company in Vietnam before becoming one of the most successful bankers in Florida. Elected a state senator, Richter is currently president of First Florida Integrity Bank and holding company TGR Financial.
In receiving their awards, Bigham and Richter shared some of the wisdom they’ve gained from their experiences:
“Setback is an opportunity” — Kathy Bigham
“Anything is possible if you surround yourself with the right team and people” — Kathy Bigham
“Make it happen” — Kathy Bigham
“The reality of entrepreneurship is that it’s a struggle” — Kathy Bigham
“You don’t dress for the job you have. You dress for the job you want” — Garrett Richter
“You have to rank your priorities” — Garrett Richter
“Learn, earn and return,” — Garrett Richter
“The only way to get a good reputation is to earn it” — Garrett Richter
The national economy may be sluggish, but don’t count Southwest Florida in that camp.
In fact, the numbers tell a different story.
The number crunchers headed by Chris Westley at the Regional Economic Research Institute at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers regularly publish data on the economic health of the region from Sarasota to Collier counties. This is useful information if you’re considering hiring staff, budgeting for next year or contemplating a major capital expenditure, for example.
The latest report (find it by clicking here) shows positive trends in all areas of the Southwest Florida economy. In particular, the report points to jumps in taxable sales, tourist-tax revenues and single-family home sales.
There is more useful data in the report, too. Get a read on inflation and forecasts for population growth, for example.
The Regional Economic Research Institute offers more insights in the local economies with a quarterly business-climate survey of executives and a new report on economic diversification. You can find it by clicking here.
Tucked away in a new industrial park off Alico Road east of Interstate 75 in Fort Myers, scientists are busy building a promising new venture that will help physicians in Southwest Florida deliver that elusive service: personalized medicine.
In the first program of its kind in the nation, the Clinical and Translational Genome Research Institute is working with Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers to develop a certificate for laboratory technicians to learn how to use the equipment that decodes individual genetic makeup. The nonprofit organization is also collaborating with Lee Memorial Health System and the Healthcare Network of Southwest Florida on major initiatives related to medical research and economic development.
Once trained by the institute, clinical laboratory technicians will be able to deliver the kind of genetic information that physicians need to tailor medications so that patients receive the best treatment with the appropriate doses. The technology is available now, but the trained workforce is lacking, scientists say.
For example, doctors now rely on a system of trial and error to determine the right medications and dosage for patients with problems ranging from attention-deficit disorders to cancer. Personalized medicine using genetic testing promises better outcomes because medications will be more effective.
“Being able to target therapy is a big deal,” says Larry Antonucci, chief operating officer for Lee Memorial Health System, speaking to a gathering at the institute’s ribbon-cutting ceremony on September 19. “This will in fact lower the cost of care.”
In addition to training laboratory technicians, the institute plans to collaborate with researchers who study various diseases to provide them with laboratory space and equipment. It also plans to assist entrepreneurial startups who lack the expensive infrastructure. The institute announced the launch of operations at the newly constructed Emergent Technologies Institute, an FGCU facility at the Innovation Hub park off Alico Road in Fort Myers.
You can read a recent story about the institute in the Business Observer, a weekly business newspaper that covers the Gulf Coast from Tampa to Naples.
There are all kinds of interesting manufacturing businesses tucked away in industrial parks around Naples.
Yes, you read right: Manufacturing. In Naples.
Pelican Wire is one of those exceptional companies that manufactures a product so special that even the Chinese are importing it. In fact, you might say the company is a symbol of skilled American manufacturing. “That’s where we win,” says Ted Bill, Pelican’s president.
Pelican makes insulated and temperature-resistant specialty wires. Employee-owned Pelican sells these wires to manufacturers that make a host of sophisticated products, from electric cars to aircraft and even floor heaters.
Export is a big part of Pelican’s business and Bill estimates selling to Asian and European customers totals about 45% of sales. About 30% to 40% of the company’s sales end up in China, he notes. (Privately held Pelican doesn’t disclose annual sales.)
Pelican Wire has been busy growing in the last two years with the acquisition of Rubadue Wire in Greeley, Colo., in late 2014 and Kerrigan-Lewis Wire Products of Chicago last year. It currently has about 1,200 customers.
The company employs 79 people in Naples and Bill says there’s some room to grow in the 33,000-square-foot facility. To accommodate future growth, Bill says the company could add another 25,000 square feet on an adjacent lot. “We continuously want to grow the business,” says Bill.