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July 20,2017 - People to Watch: Tracking builders Diggs, Rooney, Kitson
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, mailbag@news-press.comPublished 5:00 p.m. ET July 7, 2017

They are all framing and building communities – but in their own ways. Syd Kitson, Francis Rooney and Derrick Diggs were named The News-Press People to Watch for 2017 because of the challenges and opportunities awaiting them.

The News-Press editorial board is reviewing their work each quarter of this year, tracking how they are making a difference and impacting lives of those in Southwest Florida. Today, we see progress and concerns for Kitson, who is literally building a community in Charlotte and Lee counties that will one day house 50,000 people; for Fort Myers police chief Diggs, who is trying to end a violent crime wave and rebuild broken trust among the minority community in and around the neighborhoods of Dunbar; and for Congressman Rooney, R-Naples, who continues to support a president who has created global uneasiness.

A review of their work from April through June:

Diggs: He must persevere

 Diggs faced immense challenges when he took the job last August. The Dunbar community, rocked by waves of violence for years, has lost trust in its police force and the ability of law enforcement to protect them, eliminate violent crime and build a safe community.

A scathing 71-page report from the mouths of police officers and community leaders told of potential corruption, botched murder investigations and drugs and gangs able to march through and cripple the community. The Freeh report also provided 32 recommendations for the police department and city to follow to help restore trust, rebuild the police department and help lower the crime rate. To date, with information provided by the police department, there has been some movement on some of the recommendations, but we expected more progress at this point.

To his credit, Diggs has been out in the community, meeting with residents, listening to their concerns and frustrations. He has participated in town hall meetings, including one organized by The News-Press that attracted more than 350 people to Dunbar High School and allowed residents to vent to community leaders about the violence and over 100 unsolved murders. During that meeting, he impressed us by how he listened, what he contributed and how he had officers meet with residents afterward to hear their complaints.

Among the items the report said could be implemented immediately is department reorganization. Diggs has hired a deputy chief and a public information officer to help with public notifications. The top recommendation: seek outside assistance to investigate allegations of officer misconduct. Diggs did request an investigation from the local U.S. Attorney’s Office, but the office and the Justice Department are not commenting about whether a probe is in the works.

But there is much more work to do on the other recommendations. Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson has consistently said the city and its police department will implement all 32 of them. The report, which was released in February, stressed 29 of the 32 recommendations should be implemented over the next year. Diggs should follow the timeline and Henderson and the rest of the city council and staff should provide him with the necessary funds and support to improve criminal investigation technology, continue with department reorganization that allows for the hiring of more officers and promotes community involvement between the department and residents.

We recognize there is “no magic bullet,” as Diggs often says. “Folks think that you can do one thing and then everything around will turn around,” Diggs said at a recent Parents of Murdered Children meeting, organized by Diggs, as he moves forward with a progressive policing plan. “The problems we have with the disconnect with certain communities didn’t happen overnight. It took a while. And it’s going to take time to start to build that trust to where it needs to be.”

We also suggest council re-visit creating a stronger citizen review board that can help with ending the disconnect.

For the most part, Rep. Rooney is playing the typical Republican Congressman’s role in supporting his party’s platforms and his President’s initiatives in healthcare, trade with Cuba, climate change and meetings with various global leaders, including Russian president Vladimir Putin.

We are pleased Rooney has been busy meeting with his Southwest Florida constituents, hosting several town hall meetings in Lee and Collier counties. He also keeps residents informed on Congressional happenings through opinion columns in The News-Press.

He has put the state’s water quality crisis at the top of his agenda, focusing efforts on securing funding and cutting into the $1 billion owed by the federal government to the state for its half of water projects and Lake Okeechobee dike repair. He brought House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy here for a sightseeing tour of Everglades and various storage, treatment and water flow projects. McCarthy was at least optimistic enough to say he sees “ample space” in the federal budget for those projects, and to improve roads, bridges and infrastructure.

The state has spent $1.4 billion for improvements under the Central Everglades Restoration Plan and the federal government about $737 million. The state is counting on about $4.2 billion in federal money as part of the 2018 budget. Rooney must continue to lobby for that money, despite threats from President Trump to cut water projects by $1 billion.

We are disappointed Rooney voted for a healthcare repeal of Obamacare, which favors the rich, threatens Medicaid and Medicare funding and provides little security for low-income residents, currently under Obamacare, that they will have healthcare in the future.

We are disappointed Rooney chose to support a Republican plan to cripple the Consumer Financial Protection that aggressively pursued financial institutions that had mistreated consumers during the 2008 financial collapse. Cutting funds to this agency put banks back in control and builds the possibility of bank misconduct against consumers.

Rooney has followed his party’s lead on consistently pushing for tax reform. He called the current tax system a disaster in The News-Press op-ed in April. We support his plan for a simpler system.

Kitson: a town is born

Kitson, chairman and CEO of Kitson & Partners, his company, plus many builders, are sculpting a city called Babcock. No easy task, especially for a community that is being sold as green, focusing on the environment and clean energy, using solar power, and amenities that include a get-back-to-nature lifestyle with walking and cycling trails as the town borders the 73,000-acre Babcock Ranch Preserve.

This community could be home to about 50,000 people in 19,500 homes and apartments, providing a good, strong tax base for Charlotte County and also some tax benefits for Lee. About 1,600 of the dwelling units – one per 2.5 acres – will be in Lee. There also will be about 6 million square feet of commercial space, benefiting Charlotte and Lee residents with restaurants, retail and office space.

Our concerns over any development of this size is its impact on the environment. Keeping water flow ways and nature intact are crucial. Babcock appears to be addressing those concerns by preserving the natural flow ways and improving the quality of the water before it reaches the Caloosahatchee.

Home sales are increasing for the community, and 12 are currently being built. There also are model homes on the property. A much-discussed area of concern is affordable housing, and one that we hope will continue to be addressed by Kitson and his team. Lennar Homes has been added as a builder and will help drop prices from over $200,000 to about $175,000. There also have been discussions about a place for tiny homes on the land. There also will be apartments. The first residents could move in by the end of the year.

The community will feature a charter school, which opens this fall for two kindergarten classes and one class each for first through sixth grades. It is already at capacity with 158 students, and a teaching staff has already been hired. Next year, a seventh grade will be added with plans to construct a building to house K-12 students at the end of the third school year.

A new restaurant called Slater’s Provisions and Goods, as well as flexible office space that can be rented by residents, is scheduled to open at the end of August.

Kitson remains active in key roles across the state as chairman of the Florida Chamber of Commerce. He recently was added as a permanent member of the Board of Governors, overseeing the state’s university system.

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