The city of Fort Myers in the state of Florida is known as the “City of Palms.” It has approximately eighty thousand residents, while Lee County has approximately six hundred and sixty thousand residents. However, Fort Myers is projected to have at least two hundred thousand residents by the year 2037, making it one of the fastest growing municipalities in the United States.
Fort Myers comprises a small part of a fair-sized metropolitan area that includes Cape Coral and other cities within Lee County. Fort Myers is the county seat for Lee County and its central location between Miami and Tampa on Interstate 75 enables the city to serve as a logistics hub for transportation and digital infrastructure for Southwest Florida. The municipality has a robust community redevelopment agency that works closely with the economic development organization in Lee County. The community redevelopment agency of the city of Fort Myers was established in 1988 to carry out redevelopment efforts in three areas within the city that had all been declared blighted or damaged and were in need of restoration. Now, over 30 years later, the agency oversees fourteen redevelopment districts located within the city limits.
The city of Fort Myers benefits significantly from the tourism industry and its proximity to many stunning beaches. Similar to many other Florida cities, Fort Myers experiences a lot of seasonal tourism and seasonal residents alike, and the population changes greatly throughout the year. Seasonal residents tend to stay in Fort Myers from October to April before heading back to other parts of the country or the world. The climate during that time is spectacular, which attracts many Canadians down to skip the cold, winter season.
Many tourists are also fascinated by the historical landmarks of Fort Myers, such as the Edison and Ford Winter Estates. Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were some of the earliest snowbird residents of Fort Myers, and built homes next to one another along the Caloosahatchee River. Another historic site, the Williams Academy Black History Museum was originally the first government-funded school for African-American students built in 1913.The city also benefits from tourism brought in by spring training in Lee County for two popular baseball teams, the Boston Red Sox and the Minnesota Twins. Many of the city’s seasonal tourists come from Massachusetts and Minnesota for this reason and will often end up retiring in Fort Myers after getting to know the city year after year.
The city’s downtown area has a rich, historic charm and to better serve tourists, it boasts a very large hotel that is about to break ground. The 225-room Sheraton hotel is a project that the city has been working on for decades to help Fort Myers become more of a convention and conference destination. With great local restaurants downtown and a fantastic waterfront park, the city has now directed its attention to the midtown area, with an eye toward redevelopment.
Indeed, Midtown is anticipated to become very technology-oriented. The area has a local community foundation that has invested tax increment funding into its headquarters, which will be located in the city’s old train depot and will double as a technology hub for nonprofit organizations. The headquarters will connect to the Florida LambdaRail to enable high speed internet access for colleges and high schools. Kirsten O’Donnell, public relations coordinator for the city of Fort Myers says, “We think that the technology access will be great for a lot of smaller tech startups and that’s really exciting for us. The city is an older city with an older population, but we are seeing more and more young people wanting to come downtown to be a part of the vibrant, walkable, livable community.” The city aims to develop this interest even further as it adds more tech opportunities to the midtown area, and it also plans to create more housing opportunities for the younger generations, both downtown and midtown.
To be sure, Fort Myers is largely known as an area for the older generation. “People look at Fort Myers as a place where older people live; they don’t necessarily look at it as a hip and happening community, but I think that’s changing with the redevelopment of the downtown area,” explain Kirsten. The downtown area includes music walks and art walks alternating every second week, filling the streets and restaurant patios every Friday. The city’s goal is to continue expanding outward from the downtown through the rest of the city.
The word “quaint” is often used to describe downtown Fort Myers, and it truly is a charming and welcoming community with many locally owned restaurants, shops and galleries. Starbucks and Subway are in fact the only two franchises that can be found downtown. Many of the architecturally appealing old buildings are still standing today. Kirsten explains, “That’s one of the reasons why people love it, and why people are so passionate about this downtown and midtown redevelopment strategy. They want to make sure that we keep that historic charm.”
As with many North American cities, Fort Myers does face some aging infrastructure challenges. It is an older city established in the late 1800s, and some of the infrastructure in the area is outdated. In the past ten years, the downtown area went through a major upgrade to its water and sewer systems and as a result the city was able to upgrade the entire streetscape downtown as well. Similar plans have been made for midtown in order to expand its streetscape and make the area look unified as a whole. Another challenge for the city of Fort Myers is transportation. Many residents work downtown; it is the county government hub, the city government hub, and there are federal offices as well. However, most of these residents are not able to live downtown and must commute to work, which is why the city is working on a plan to create more available housing downtown.
There is no doubt, the quality of life in Fort Myers is exceptional in terms of both climate and culture. As Kirsten says, “The quality of life in Fort Myers is great; it’s a little more laidback than the other side of the state. Miami and Fort Lauderdale are very busy and very metropolitan, but it’s not as hectic here.” The city has a unique and distinct arts and culture scene that people outside the community are often surprised to hear of. For the past year, there has been a sculpture exhibit downtown by an artist named Edgardo Carmona that people are fascinated by. These gigantic iron sculptures have become a part of the downtown landscape. Fort Myers also boasts a Florida Repertory Theatre that has been named one of the best repertory theatres in the country by the Wall Street Journal for several years now. The city also has a beautiful downtown arts center that was originally a federal post office, and it has become one of the crown jewels of the area.
The recession hit Fort Myers and the rest of Florida particularly hard. A considerable portion of its economy is based on tourism and housing construction, which are the first two things that can be cut back on when the economy starts to decline. “There was a point where it felt like every third house on a block was in foreclosure or had a short sale sign, but that also sparked a lot of growth afterwards in the community because houses were once again affordable and people could move here and invest in the area. That is part of the reason we have been growing so quickly the last few years,” says Kirsten. Fort Myers is lucky that it found a way to benefit from the economic downturn.
“When people think of Florida they often think of Disney or Miami. Disney is great and Miami is spectacular, but Fort Myers in a lot of ways is the authentic Florida. The historic charm has really been preserved and that makes our community a little different from others in Florida,” says Kirsten. There is a clear reason why Fort Myers has the largest concentration of retired CEOs in the United States; the quality of life is unbeatable and it is one of the fastest growing municipalities in the U.S.