By: Butch Swank
If someone asks where you live and they’re not very familiar with Florida, you say Fort Myers, right? Mentioning places like Bonita, Estero, or Lehigh usually gets you a blank stare. In these times when people argue over everything, I imagine one thing we can all agree on is that over the past twenty years, the city of Fort Myers and Southwest Florida, in general, have grown tremendously. After all, this place is pretty danged awesome, and that’s exactly why we live here, right?
In sports, we’ve all heard the term momentum used by commentators. It’s when your team can do nothing right or, if they have good momentum, they can do no wrong. It’s so much fun when that happens and downright painful when your team doesn’t have it. I am a fan of the Gators and Buccaneers and am far, far too familiar these days with the bummer side of momentum. Did you know that governments can have momentum, too? I took a second to look up some interesting numbers, and as I mentioned earlier, Southwest Florida is a huge place, so I focused my research only on the City of Fort Myers proper. In 1900, Fort Myers had a population of 943 and grew to 51,971 by 2000. From 2000 to 2022, the City of Fort Myers added 40,274 people, making a grand total of 92,245, and that number is increasing rapidly. So, in twenty-two years, this one community within all of Southwest Florida added nearly as many people as it took to gain during the previous 100 years. That’s astonishing growth!
Here’s the part where you say, “Why is Butch giving me a math and history lesson while I’m supposed to be pleasantly enjoying my increasingly rare free time?” Great question! I am so glad you asked! I frequently write about different government departments, and my current favorites are the Lee County Commission and the School District because I and many, many others see a big gap between what we want to see being done and what is actually being done. After seeing those recent population numbers, I had this moment where it became clear to me that what I’ll call “Fort Myers” is stuck with the exact same momentum they’ve had for 100 years. To be fair, it certainly worked well for that period. Now, in the past 20ish years, they’re falling behind, and I don’t see a ton of evidence they intend to change anytime soon. The old saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” might be the most charitable way to characterize today’s approach by our elected officials responsible for managing this great place.
Traffic is probably the most obvious pain point. Still, there are others like over-development, lack of police in certain areas, chronically understaffed and poorly equipped schools, too few schools where they’re most needed, bussing kids all over the county, which also adds to traffic, different organizations (like water utilities) doing the same jobs and bickering over the few resources they have, post-hurricane repair progress of traffic lights, etc, etc, etc.
Here’s a specific example to highlight the challenge we face. The Lee County School District plans to build an Innovation School on Treeline Avenue. If you’re unfamiliar, Treeline is a street just East of I-75 between Daniels and Colonial. Who lives on Treeline mostly? Affluent older people without kids. Why put a school focused on educating children for future technical careers in a place with so few kids? Fun fact time: Did you know that in Lehigh Acres, 71 out of 100 households have school-age kids, and for reference, in Estero, only 8 out of 100 homes have school-age kids? The obvious question is, why build an Innovation School in an area with so few kids and then make traffic even worse by busing them from an area with kids to a place without kids? It makes even less sense when you learn the School District already owns multiple pieces of vacant land in Lehigh Acres. Why would they not reconsider putting that school in Lehigh?
I think the answer is simple. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and we aren’t squeaking. Time is a luxury, and I certainly get how busy our lives are. We all also deal with a massive amount of distractions daily. Hey, you get zero judgment from me. I am guilty as charged there, too! But I want better for our community, and I believe you do too. How can you help? Again, I am so glad you asked! I propose you pick one thing that really chaps your hide. Do a five-minute Google search to find out what government entity is responsible for it and how to get in touch. Here comes the hard part: call them. I prefer a phone call because I can have a back-and-forth, which usually means I learn more and better understand how to make my voice heard. Everyone I’ve spoken with so far has been kind, very professional, and, most importantly, willing to help me with my issue. Imagine if thousands of us gave feedback on the things that bug us. Many voices saying the same thing is impossible to ignore, and if enough of us reach out, we can address almost every issue currently making this beautiful place less than it could be.
Together, we can change our local momentum for the better, so let’s get after it!
We have two important upcoming events I want to share with you. A grassroots effort to incorporate Lehigh Acres is hosting a meeting to discuss the pros and cons of incorporation at 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, September 12, at the East Lee Library. They want to hear your voice, for or against, and have invited government officials who will attend. The other item is the Southwest Florida Business Alliance, where I serve as President, is having a meeting on Monday, September 25th. John Talmage, the Director of the Lee County Economic Development Office, will discuss the exciting growth coming to the East Lee area along with Nita Whaley, who has been responsible for a ton of the development Cape Coral has recently enjoyed. This luncheon will be held from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. at the Plantation County Club on, you guessed it, Treeline! I’m thrilled to say we need to have it there because our organization has grown so much that our previous place was too small to hold everyone. If interested, here is the website: swflbusinessalliance.com. Look, good things are happening, good people are working towards making this an even better place, and I write all this to ask that you make sure your very important voice is heard, too.
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