May 18,2015 - ‘Here We Grow Again’
FGCU forum foresees building boom in Charlotte.
By GARY ROBERTS – STAFF WRITER
May 16, 2015
FORT MYERS — A home-building explosion is about to ignite in Charlotte County, real estate experts said Friday at a “Future of Development” conference on the Florida Gulf Coast University campus.
Rick Dalton, executive vice president for KB Home, said he might not know exactly when or where it will take place, but the resuscitated construction activity seen in neighboring counties soon will find its way to Charlotte.
“It’s definitely coming,” he said. “Charlotte County has been discovered.”
There is no better example of this anticipated building boon than Babcock Ranch, believed to be the largest master planned community in the country set to break ground. With a projected 19,500 homes on 18,000 acres, this sustainable community will begin to take shape by early next year, said Al Dougherty, senior vice president for developer Kitson & Partners.
“It’s extremely exciting to be on the cusp of launching Babcock Ranch,” Dougherty told a roomful of real estate professionals at the Urban Land Institute-Southwest Florida District Council’s final session of its “Here We Grow Again” series in Fort Myers.
Friday, representatives from Charlotte County examined the current development trends in their home county.
In the first phase of the mammoth Babcock Ranch development off State Road 31 in east county, upward of $50 million will be spent on 300 single- and multifamily units, a lakefront town square that comprises office and retail space, and an extensive walking and biking trail system through conservation areas, Dougherty said.
And this residential rebirth already may have begun.
In just the first three months of this year, Charlotte amassed 261 new-construction residential building permits, or almost as many as all of 2011 (272), and almost half of last year’s total (593). Commercial construction also is soaring, with 24 permits obtained from January through March, compared with 13 in 2014.
Dalton said KB Home, which has three active residential communities in Punta Gorda, is seeing an influx of traffic from neighboring counties and Florida’s east coast. These potential home buyers are generally seasonal, older (ages 65-79), and wanting to take advantage of the area’s affordability and quality of life.
“There’s a lot of value offered in Charlotte County,” he said. “We’re getting a lot more affluent buyers now.”
There are other harbingers of economic growth as well.
Passenger counts at the Punta Gorda Airport continue to set records, with 218,373 passengers during the first quarter of 2015. Last year, an unprecedented 628,075 passengers used the airport.
Besides bringing visitors to the area, the 4,300-acre economic enterprise zone around the airport is ready to welcome new businesses. Already designated and approved for light industrial development, the shovel-ready airport park has laid claim to a new distribution center and regional warehouse for Cheney Brothers, now under construction.
“We’re getting ready for this wave of manufacturing and distribution that we’re expecting at our airport,” said Tom Patton, economic development director for Charlotte County.
Another stimulus for economic growth is the recently approved six-year extension of the local-option sales tax. A total of about $110 million in revenue is expected to fund 20-plus projects, including needed infrastructure and civic projects.
Andy Stultz, president of the Enterprise Charlotte Economic Council, a privately funded group that actively supported the 1 percent sales tax drive, said this building program is essential.
“This is critical to the overall future of the county,” he said. “We’re trying to grow the economic base in Charlotte County with good, above average-paying jobs.”
All of which adds up to a lot of construction activity in the coming years. Charlotte County Commission Chairman Bill Truex lauded the mix of public and private initiatives that will benefit everyone.
“It’s been a very concerted effort,” he said.
One negative brought out at the conference, however, is the continued lack of skilled workers in the area. Education is the only way to fill the demand for manufacturing and high-tech jobs.
“We need a workforce,” Patton said. “Without the workforce, it’s impossible to recruit a business.”