Naples' explosive growth and affluence offers few living options for those working everyday jobs
Fresh out of the military, Tony Ridgeway landed in Naples in 1971 to begin a new life as a restaurateur.
Life was simpler back then.
It was laidback.
The Naples area offered affordable places for service workers to call home.
But Naples began to grow.
More affluent retirees meant more and higher-end restaurants for Ridgeway and other chefs and entrepreneurs. It also meant more jobs for Collier County residents in the service industry.
Gradually over time though, things began to change.
And now the effects are palpable.
“Many of our employees lived within a few minutes drive or walk to their place of employment. Those days are so far in the past. It is almost impossible to envision the community that Naples was at that time,” said Ridgeway.
Ridgeway is the owner of Ridgeway Bar & Grill, Tony’s Off Third and Bayside Seafood and Grill.
He was one among several leaders in various industries to speak at a forum on the lack of housing opportunities for the workers who provided necessary services day-in and day-out.
The area’s growth and wealth cleared away what was once considered affordable apartments, guest houses and working-class neighborhoods.
“I come to you not as an official representative of the restaurant industry, but as an individual who has faced the vagaries and realities of housing these past five decades.
“The problem grew as the city and county grew. The problem grew as the wealth and its disparities grew. The problem grew as the workforce began to move eastward into the county. The problem grew as those who could effect change chose not to,” Ridgeway said.
The growth did not just chase away those in the food and beverage industry. It chased away teachers. Law enforcement officers. Engineers. Nurses. Even leaders of companies are struggling to find a place to buy or rent that is within their means.
“Today, 48,000 workers in Collier County commute to their jobs from other counties. They're either to the north of us and Lee and Hendry. They're to the east of us in Miami, Miami Dade and Broward and so forth,” said Joe Trachtenberg, the chairman of the Collier County Affordable Housing Advisory Committee.
Trachtenberg had a stern warning for the some 400 people in attendance at the forum Wednesday: The services and lifestyles that many successful business leaders and retirees have come to expect in Collier County will change drastically if something isn’t done to help keep Collier’s workforce in Collier County.
The workers who were already priced out of the area need to be lured back before it’s too late, Trachtenberg told the crowd gathered at the Naples United Church of Christ.
“Be assured that they would love to reduce the three hours or so a day they spend in their cars every single day. Every commuting Collier County employee or worker has his eyes open for a good job near home.” He said.
A program passed out at the start of the forum listed the names, emails and phone numbers of elected and appointed leaders in the Collier County and Naples governments.
Trachtenberg encouraged attendees to take action and call on their elected leaders to do something.
“If you agree we have a serious problem, please make your feelings known. If together we don't open our windows and demand changes, I guarantee this crisis will get worse,” he said.
A handful of elected and appointed leaders were in attendance including newly elected County Commissioner Daniel Kowal.
A 20-year veteran at the sheriff’s office, Kowal said he understands all too well the difficulties of obtaining and retaining sheriff’s deputies.
He said he appreciated the input from respected leaders in a multitude of fields and would like to continue the conversation.
“This problem has been around for at least a decade,” Kowal said. “I know that I've been seeing it coming. …I can only imagine that people starting out with a lot of debt from school and college and trying to start a career and it's hard.”
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