To the editor:
Lee County has a natural resource that is under utilized and only marginally appreciated. It is our senior population.
This demographic has the ability to broaden our economic base in unexpected ways.
Looking at Lee County employment data, it becomes clear this region has two core businesses. One is tourism. The other is what could be called Life Extension.
Being twice the national average in senior population, we have a strong and vital demographic which spawns a growing number of jobs.
In Lee County, the 16th largest employer is 21st Century Oncology, the 14th is Shell Point Retirement Community, 12th is Hope Healthcare and the largest is Lee Memorial Health System.
Of course this does not include all the medical private practices, clinics, home health services, medical supply companies, senior living facilities, and social service organizations.
In other words, we are rich in a demographic that is redefining how businesses and services are preparing for success in next quarter century - catering to baby boomers and their desire to maintain a healthy and independent lifestyle.
Unlike Lee County, a coalition of interested parties in the city of Portland OR has developed a Center for Aging and Technology. The center has created a dynamic environment where 300 hi-tech homes and condos are fully wired.
Residents get to use cutting edge tools and devices to help them maintain their independence. In this "living laboratory," products and cognitive behaviors are then evaluated
Corporations see Portland as a place to develop and test their hi-tech devices with the intention of mass marketing their inventions nationwide.
At MIT, they have an Age Lab that sees the future as demographically older and technologically enabled.
The MIT Age Lab is looking at how developers, community planners, zoning boards, government agencies and insurers can work together to create an environment that will help the elderly maintain their independence.
Here in Lee County we need to embrace aging and understand our senior population comes here to live a more vibrant life.
To promote that vibrancy, it's proven these hubs of hi-tech companies and planned communities work best when they are part of the urban fabric; not isolated and segregated.
Connectivity and integration are critical so the young and elderly can mix. Propinquity to hospitals is important, as is providing pedestrian access to stores for every day essentials.
Unfortunately, here in Lee County we are doing the exact opposite in creating the right environment for such natural economic growth.
The proposed "Research Diamond" is something out of a 1980s playbook for promoting urban sprawl. This "corporate research" park is located in our sensitive water recharge area east of I-75, where the headwaters for Estero River are already under environmental stress.
Such development only pushes jobs further away from where people live, increases commute times, uses up valuable infrastructure dollars and further isolates people.
Its close proximity to FGCU means little when it's clear that the university is not yet a fully functioning research facility like the University of Florida in Gainesville and won't be for a very long time.
This is why economists talk about the significance of "comparative advantage." You must acknowledge your community's natural strengths and play to them. Our failure to do so has led to a loss in competitive strength.
A center for aging need not be a government project. But Lee County can take a leadership role and partner with business to cut through red tape and create opportunity, grow the tax base and build an even better community.
With the right foresight, planning and commitment, Lee County's core business of life extension can prosper in our existing urban zones- at little cost to the taxpayer.
- Warren Wright of Fort Myers is a member of the Lee County Tourism Development Council. A former Fort Myers City Council member, he is a candidate the the Lee County Commission, District 2.