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Lee County Economic Development Director John Talmage talks about recovery after Hurricane Ian: Moore About Business

So how much did Hurricane Ian slow down Lee County’s pre-Ian growth pace? That’s the question every commercial real estate professional and business owner in the room wanted answered when Lee County Economic Development Director John Talmage spoke at a recent real estate gathering.

"A week after Ian, 98% of all the businesses on Fort Myers Beach were closed. 98% of the businesses on Sanibel were closed. 96% of the businesses on Pine Island were closed. 45% of the businesses in North Fort Myers were closed. 38% of the businesses in Cape Coral were closed and we didn’t know what was ever going to re-open," said Talmage.

He continued, “And was it time to be scared? You bet. We weren’t sure what unemployment was going to look like. We’re today still not sure where everyone went. Because what was different between Ian and Irma was that so many people lost their homes AND their jobs. So we know people had to leave -- not chose to leave but has to leave."

So what are we dealing with in Lee County? Talmage noted this: "Today we are facing an historical number of new home builds to begin with, but also restored homes. We’re not sure where we’re going to put everyone."

He discussed several affordable housing projects underway all over the county, including the $1.1 billion Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“So it’s not going to solve the affordable housing problem, the workforce housing problem that was created by COVID and enhanced by Ian, but it’s going to put a dent in that bucket,” he said.

Talmage then shared this job news. “The other thing that has been amazing, since 2010 we averaged 10 to 15,000 new jobs a year. In 2020, we added 20,000 jobs that year: in the last six months since Ian, we’ve added 18,800 jobs in those six months."

Talmage talked about construction growth, particularly on Alico Road which has 9 million square feet under construction.

He then went on to talk about specific projects, including medical tourism, which holds great promise for our region.

"So all these companies are here, working, and working hard, adding to our workforce. The result has been that in 2020 our per capita income was $28,000: today it’s $63,000. Our average median income is $84,000, that’s gone up 20% in the last 10 years.
So does that mean we will leave a certain group of businesses behind? For sure. Because not everyone can afford to pay $25-$30/hour. But there are companies coming in like Scotlynn, and NeoGenomics, and Emcyte, Arthrex, that are paying top dollar."

So, according to Talmage, all is not gloom and doom, but a future for the region that shines brighter than ever for growth and prosperity.

Karen Moore is publisher of Southwest Florida Business Todayand a weekly contributor to WGCU News.

Publisher of SWFL Business Today