Recession-worn Cape Coral took another hit in 2010.
Foreclosure numbers continued to tally among the highest in the country, taxable property valuations fell another 17 percent, unemployment rates remained in double digits and Cape Coral-Fort Myers was named the second-worst area in the country for job seekers by a Washington D.C. based think tank.
No, the first year of the new decade didn't pull any punches on economically bruised and battered Southwest Florida, an area still reeling from the collapse of the housing market.
Still, the free-fall plummet of the previous couple of years did level off, giving rise to some cautious optimism that if things weren't exactly getting a whole lot better, they were stabilizing to the point where residents and business owners could at least catch their breaths for another round.
Unfortunately, that round may be coming.
Financial experts are finally forecasting what bankers have been whispering about for the last year. There's a new wave of foreclosures in the queue and as a result, housing prices are expected to fall again in the new year, this time an estimated 5-10 percent as the "shadow inventory" hits the market. Another price plunge would negate any year-over-year gains in 2010, putting more property owners "under water."
The Christian Science Monitor quotes one source as saying there were 4 million homes already in some phase of foreclosure in December with an estimated 10 million more expected by the end of 2012. To put that into perspective, there were 6.5 million home foreclosures between 2005 and 2009, 884,282 of which were in Florida.
What areas will be hardest hit? According to an Associated Press report also published Wednesday, those areas with struggling economies, already high foreclosure rates, high employment and little job growth.
So how do we, as a community, prepare for the next blow, should it come?
We focus - focus on what we have learned to date, focus on the core issue - job creation - and focus on moving forward, even if we're going to have to bleed a little longer, capitalizing and maximizing any small advances along the way.
That's the lesson 2010 taught us - and it's a key component for economic survival in 2011.
It's the economy, stupid
Lee County unemployment rates topped 14 percent in 2010 and, while seasonal hiring knocked that back a bit by year's end, 13 percent-plus still counts among record highs. Nearly 37,000 people are looking for work countywide and that does not include those who are under-employed, working two part-time jobs to make ends meet, or those who have given up or fallen off the unemployment rolls.
Each of these people represents a potential foreclosure or shut-out-of-the-market, would-be home buyer. Each of these people also means lower per-capita spending - and so more layoffs - keeping us running around and around the track going nowhere.
This issue is not unique to Cape Coral and Lee County. Experts with a lot more financial expertise than we recognize that private investment is the key to putting people back to work. While the tax-breaks-for-the- rich rhetoric is getting all the attention from politicians, politicos and pundits, tucked into the recently signed tax relief bill are some tantalizing incentives to persuade the private sector to invest.
The same Christian Science Monitor report that outlines a bleak forecast for the housing market next year also predicts a growing economy across other sectors as tax incentives related to how businesses can write off or depreciate capital investments gives a private sector in fear of a double-dip recession a good reason to plow some of the estimated $1.93 trillion - yes, trillion - stored in cash and short-term securities back into the economy. The ultimate result will be job creation.
On the local level, Lee County, which already offers incentives for job creation, is considering another avenue to the same goal by reducing impact and "change of use" fees for certain types of businesses, especially health care. Neighboring Collier and Charlotte counties, and various communities across the state, have slashed such fees, which add significantly to the cost of opening up a business.
We again urge the Cape to follow suit - to indeed lead the charge - en route to fee reformation. Cut them and, in situations where desirable job growth is assured, waive them entirely to foster economic recovery.
We acknowledge that cutting fees is no panacea -some depressed areas have reduced, eliminated or waived fees but still have seen little growth.
The Cape, though, has a golden opportunity that other areas do not. Thanks largely to Congressman Connie Mack, Cape Coral soon will see the doors to a new Veteran's Administration medical clinic open. The clinic is under construction in the north Cape and it's set to open in January 2012.
The city has tagged the area around the hospital with a jazzy new name - the Veteran's Investment Zone, or "VIZ," - in hope of attracting health-related businesses. Nifty nicknames aside, the city actually only needs to do two things to aid the business wave that naturally follows this type of project: Make the process of coming into the city easy, and make the location competitive with, say, the area around Gulf Coast Medical Center.
The city has made progress on the former with changes in the permitting process but work still needs to be done to attain the latter.
That's where impact fee adjustments come in.
Job growth is the first step to economic recovery and jobs paying more than the local average are the cornerstone of true economic development. We urge council to do its part to make the Cape financially attractive to businesses that can bring in jobs. Specifically, reform the fee structure - and the thinking that led to thousands upon thousands of dollars in add-on costs for new businesses in the first place.
Do what can be done to help Cape residents get back to work. Recovery will follow.
Pulling the cart
in two directions
gets you nowhere
Cape Coral politics have always been... interesting, and the politics plied in 2010 were no exception.
Voters laid the groundwork for change at the tail end of 2009 by tossing out the incumbents and seating four candidates from two distinct camps - two from a tightly knit faction that ran as a slate, and two others aligned more closely with the then-status quo. The election effectively split the eight-person board down the middle on key issues.
Little got done in the first months of 2010.
It took the arrest of Councilmember Eric Grill, a contractor who was accused of taking money for work not performed, to tip the balance. Mr. Grill's suspension by the governor while his case awaited adjudication opened up a council vacancy, a vacancy readily filled with a "like minded" resident and political supporter of the four members of the board who had all signed a political pledge called the "Contract With Cape Coral."
Blowback was immediate and the discontent grew increasingly heated when the so-called "Fab Five" then appointed a political ally with no public sector administrative experience as city manager and that manager, Gary King, tapped two other supporters as "organizational efficiency consultants" at $39 dollars an hour.
Things have since gotten ugly.
Some council members on both sides of the now 5-3 split have resorted to name calling both among themselves and with the public. E-mail exchanges have become progressively ruder, and those on the board minority say they have had information to which they are entitled delayed or denied.
Meanwhile, a growing group of new faces has joined the political fray on the community side, making their views known with T-shirts, on blogs and via a Facebook page, forum posts and e-mail exchanges, tactics previously used by unhappy residents - now public officials - in the last election.
As we said, interesting times, which have lent a better understanding of the curse that begins "may you live in..."
Leadership is sorely needed and it needs to start on the dais where being right reigned supreme in 2010.
Let us be clear: We believe the Cape's council members - all of them - sincerely want what is best for the city. While we may disagree with the methods of some from time to time, we'll attribute ill motivation to none. Our elected officials don't have to agree, not with each other, not even with the public if they truly believe the "malcontents" are a vocal few.
However, council must - must -reform its interaction with each other and the public, even if that public insists on vigorously exercising its First Amendment rights. Simply stated, the city has to pull in the same direction, politics be damned.
Only council can make its focus the issues at hand - and which camp has the upper hand is not one of them.
United we stand
Hand in hand with focus is, of course, leadership; they are two sides of the same coin.
This council promised - with the "contract signers" putting it in writing - to unite a community ravaged by the recession and divided over the still-unresolved utility expansion project.
Let us quote: ... "We are firmly committed to working to bring trust back into our city government and return vibrancy to the economy. We believe, that together, we can solve our problems, but not by dividing the populace into groups fighting one another."
We couldn't have said it better ourselves.
In 2011 we, as community, need to hold not only The Road Ahead coalition who penned that promise but all of council members to that tenet that vows to put politics aside for the betterment of the city.
The push-me-pull-you infighting that has plagued our city for two years now has led to no progress on issues that need to be resolved so the Cape can take full advantage of any economic recovery projects that may come our way.
Matters still on the table due a lack of focus, a lack of leadership, on the core economic issues we face?
The utility expansion project and its contested assessment methodology? Unresolved.
The North Spreader Ecomanagement System Agreement, which would bring the city back into compliance with Florida Department of Environmental Protection edicts linked to development in the north Cape? Unresolved.
The commitment to make the city truly business friendly? Unresolved with the boom years bashing of the "evil axis" of developers/contractors/Realtors continuing although our very survival is hinged on restarting the economic driver that made us prosperous.
Reformation is sorely needed, and it needs to come in 2011 with these unresolved issues at the top of a pressing list.
We, as city, have some very real challenges ahead. It is our hope - as it is likely the hope of every resident, business person and city official alike - that the attributes that spurred our community to the forefront of economic growth during the "good" years will spare us from yet another rough period.
If not, only united leadership will be our salvation.
Cape officials would be wise to realize what many on the national and state level learned the hard way in 2010 - that issues-focused leadership can come from the current board or it can come via the ballot box in 2011. That choice is up to our elected representatives and, ultimately the residents who will be asking themselves at the polls if they are better off then than they were as 2010 closed.
May 2011 open with a happy New Year for you and yours. And may 2011 be a year of reformation and resolve for those who can help make it happen.
- Breeze editorial