Last May, Cape Coral heralded the possibility of its first major economic development coup - an athletic complex designed for national and international competition with subsequent phases to include a 300-room hotel and convention center.
The "Concourse at Cape Coral" would include competitive-standard Olympic swimming pools, stadium seating for up to 10,000 spectators, a national swimming hall of fame, 20-court competitive tennis facility, and all of the related retail and business amenities. The annual economic impact was estimated at $21,459,496 if only a dozen major events were held at the center yearly. Add in indirect impacts and the number climbs to $35,837,356 with $358,783 in additional bed tax revenue and $1,287,568 in additional sales tax funds bumping the total.
Nine months later, the project is slipping away, stymied by a tight timetable, a much-higher-than-expected price tag for site improvements, and a change in the political makeup on the Cape Coral City Council.
While the city has little control over external project deadlines and demands for pricey infrastructure improvements to the 180-acre parcel the city bought in hope of fostering the development of an "academic village" complex north of Pine Island Road, it does have control over its own priorities. It is here that we are puzzled: With council - this new council - setting economic development and the economy as its No. 1 priority in December, why the dithering over a regional prize that very likely will slip across the river where officials understand that economic development is not another strip mall?
As we said last year when former council member Dolores Bertonlini brought the National Swimming Center Corporation to the table, the Cape needs to pursue this project aggressively as it is exactly the type of project for which towns and counties compete: A non-polluting, community-branding enterprise that brings new money into the community and the region.
That's the definition of economic development and yes, while very supportive of the Cape's dibs on the project, Lee County officials have been open concerning their interest in picking up the proposal, perhaps for City of Palms Park, should the city pass.
We suggest a couple of things.
One, it's apparent that the city needs some help here, and we're not just talking about financial aid to help offset the $5 million cash contribution plus another $22 million or so for site prep, utilities, and wetlands mitigation to make the property at Kismet construction ready.
The city needs expertise and, fortunately, Lee County has a bank of applicable professional knowledge available. The Lee County Sports Authority has been involved in the project since the National Swimming Center Corporation put its feelers out for interest here. This entity serves all of Lee County
So does the county's Economic Development Office, whose officials have been vocal in their professed promotion of Lee in its entirety, including the various municipalities.
The city must - must - reach out to the county for some professional help and analysis. There is no time to waste and indeed, the window of opportunity is closing due to the National Swimming Center Corporation's intent to have the gates of what it intends to be its flagship location open for business within two years.
Make the call, ask for staff-level assistance. At least two Lee County commissioners, Ray Judah and Tammy Hall, have already given the city their support on this endeavor, saying on the financial side they would favor contributing a $4.5 million giveback from Florida Gulf Coast University for its swimming pool to the Concourse at Cape Coral project.
Tap the resources and support at hand. Make the effort to "keep it in the Cape."
Two, understand that economic development is never going to come cheap. The arena is too competitive and the incentives that entice mean money on the table - infrastructure, cash, tax breaks and the like - because long-term, that investment comes back if you have chosen wisely. In this case, the incentives are cash and the cost of getting the site construction-ready with utilities and the preparation needed to comply with environmental constraints and Army Corp of Engineers requirements. With the county's help, weigh the return on that requested investment. Then buck up or give up on economic development.
Let's get moving or let's get out of the way. We've wasted enough time - and taxpayer money - on lip service and politics-based rhetoric.
- Breeze editorial