The Real Estate Investment Society and Urban Land Institute conducted a workshop, “Challenges and Strategies for Property Development Today,” last Thursday morning in Fort Myers. Mary Gibbs, Lee County‘s Director of Community Development, got right to the point:

All properties today are challenging. Nothing’s easy anymore,” noting that property location, infrastructure availability, and objections from surrounding residents seem to be the most common constraints. 

Local governments are reacting to these economic and site-specific development difficulties by implementing changes and adopting more business friendly approaches to complex development issues that may delay or kill potential new projects.
Bonita Springs City Manager Carl Schwing joined Ms. Gibbs in a panel discussion regarding tactics and strategies local governments can utilize to help facilitate private development in a difficult economy. Both indicated that engaging in discussions with local government development staff 

in the early stages of a project can make a tremendous impact on the project’s success because it gives staff members an opportunity to identify obstacles and help craft creative, time-saving solutions to those problems. 

“It comes down to communication,” said Mr. Schwing. “Help us help you.” “We are all open for business. We want to move things along as quickly as we can.” This early communication is critical in order to identify goals, set realistic timelines for obtaining approvals, and manage expectations for both the developer and local government staff. 

Lee County Incentives 

Ms. Gibbs explained that Lee County has taken actions to provide assistance to private developers, such as: 

  • Maintaining the tax rate at a relatively low level 
  • Reducing road impact fees by 27%, and considering reductions for school, park and fire/EMS impact fees 
  • Temporarily waiving change of use impact fees 
  • Reducing medical office impact fees to match those charged for general office 
  • Funding economic development incentives like the $25M pool for the “First Program” 
  • Implementing policies providing permit extensions for existing projects

Bonita Springs Incentives 

Mr. Schwing emphasized that it is important for local governments to be business friendly now more than ever before due to the struggling economy. Bonita Springs has 1.5 million square feet of vacant commercial space that local officials would like to see filled.  Some things he said cities can do include:

  • Reducing the review and approval time for job-creating projects by giving them priority over other requests 
  • Creating county and municipal partnerships 
  • Offering city-owned lands for development 
  • Waiving impact fees and municipal service fees 
  • Layering city, county, and state incentives for qualifying projects
Mr. Schwing and Ms. Gibbs agreed that the philosophy of local government officials and staff members has changed from past years in which Southwest Florida experienced a frenzy of development activity and development reviewers sought to reign in uncontrolled growth. “There’s a different attitude these days,” said Mr. Schwing. “Now, it’s how do we get things done, and how do we get them done quickly?”