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Into the Future: Even at 50, the city of Cape Coral’s history has only begun

By CJ HADDAD - | Sep 18, 2020

The Pine Island Road Corridor has become a “hot spot” for development in the Cape. PHOTO BY MICHAEL PISTELLA

A lot has happened in 50 years since the city of Cape Coral’s incorporation, and it’s safe to say things have only just begun.

From a large, undeveloped plot of land to a city of approximately 200,000 with over 400 miles of canals, Cape Coral has seen drastic change in a relatively short amount of time.

According to those in the know, more change is on the horizon for a city that plans to build out to more than double the current population.

“One of the first things that comes to mind is to continue to build out the infrastructure of the city,” said Cape Coral Mayor Joe Coviello. “We’re still in the middle of the Utility Expansion Project (with another phase beginning soon) and that will continue into the future. We have to build out and make sure that all residents have access to water and sewer.”

City forecasters say the Cape will continue to see single and multi-family homes being built in the area as the population continues to skyrocket. Local leaders and officials also hope to continue to bring in commercial developments that, in-turn, create jobs for residents. One of the biggest concerns moving forward is continued job opportunities locally and not over the bridge. Coviello is hopeful that as infrastructure projects continue, Cape Coral will be able to bring in more resources for its residents.

“Once we get sewer and water up a ways to the other corridors, it’s going to spark a lot of growth, which is actually already starting in the northwest part of our city and through the northeast,” Coviello said. “The infrastructure is also a segue into more commercial development. Anywhere that we have large plots of land that are prime for manufacturing or commercial development, currently don’t have any sewer or water. By completing the infrastructure, it will give us a better opportunity to bring in more commercial (development), which obviously leads to more jobs.

 “We’re definitely expanding in the residential sector, and we need to try and develop economically from a commercial standpoint.”

While the Pine Island Road Corridor has become a “hot spot” for development in the Cape, the city will need to continue to use other resources as a way to attract prospective businesses. A challenge could be the lack of large tracts in the city available for development.

Coviello said he anticipates that over the next 10 years, the city will be built out and in the next 25, will double in size.

“From my perspective, I’d like to try and do it smartly to make sure we’re looking into the future to see how we can better the city and make it a better municipality than it is now,” Coviello said.

Former Cape Coral mayor and President of BJM Consulting Joe Mazurkiewicz said it is critical for the city to continue to create jobs within the Cape, as limited travel capacity could create a mess for commuters.

“The limitation of growth is going to be the limited number of paths out of the city,” Mazurkiewicz said. “Since they’re not going to be doing any more bridges to any large job center in Lee County, the limitations to our growth will be the trips for employment going across the bridge. We’re probably over 45,000 trips per day, up to 60,000 going back and forth across the river.

“We need to bring jobs into Cape Coral so that people don’t have to leave to get to work. That’s going to be the single biggest obstacle to us fulfilling our destiny for projected population.

“Absent that, the traffic and the bridges will become so horrendous that people won’t choose to live here anymore.”

Lee County Commission Chair and Cape Coral resident Brian Hamman said connecting the Cape to other parts of the county is a continued effort with the Cape Coral City Council and  the county  agrees that job creation in Cape Coral is paramount to the city’s success moving forward.

“We, as a county, build a lot of the major roads that connect the city of Cape Coral to the rest of the county, and so our goal is to keep the infrastructure well maintained and that it serves the residents well,” Hamman said.

“As the community faces the potential of doubling in size, we can’t get everybody over the bridge to work every day. Even if we added another bridge, we’d fill that thing up as soon as it was built. I think we’ve got to focus on looking at the opportunities in Cape Coral where you can get employment centers built. I think there’s a lot of opportunity in the north part of Cape Coral that would give people a much shorter commute time, and allow them to live, work and play in Cape Coral.”

What does Hamman think of the idea of another bridge being built? Well, he’s skeptical.

“Another bridge would be an absolute dream, right? The problem is I think with today’s environmental regulations and looking at the cost, it would probably be just that — a dream,” Hamman said. “It’s something that obviously deserves to be studied.

“Back when they used to build bridges, they didn’t seem to care about the environment as much as our community is focused on preserving and protecting it today. I just don’t know if that would be feasible today.”

In regards to environmental practices, water quality is unanimously at the top of the list when it comes to the future of not just Cape Coral, but Southwest Florida as a whole. The region is just two years removed from a blue-green algae event that sent economic shockwaves through local businesses.

“We saw a few years ago the importance of water quality because of the devastation that we could experience economically if we don’t take care of the water — it could be extremely detrimental to our local businesses, real estate market and areas of development in our city,” Coviello said.

Mazurkiewicz said if water quality were to deteriorate in the area, the consequences would be “traumatic.”

“We have to be so cognizant of the water quality in our canals,” Mazurkiewicz said. “If we let our canal system degrade to the point where it wouldn’t support recreational activities, it would be traumatic to the city.”

Cape Coral has had a fertilizer ordinance in place for some time, and even piloted an algae-removal project in 2018 to try and rid canals of foul-smelling and potentially health-hazardous algae.

Coviello is hopeful the city will continue to be vigilant in its operations as they relate to local waters.

“As we address the runoff (from the city), there’s some concerns that I have with how we’re going to do that and how we can keep the water that goes into those canals clean so we don’t have blooms taking place,” Coviello said.

It’s not just water quality, but quantity that is also on the minds of Cape leaders. Both Coviello and Mazurkiewicz speculated there could be a second water treatment plan needed in the city if it is to be home to more than 400,000 residents.

The city has an interlocal agreement with Fort Myers to bring in reclaimed water for irrigation use and is currently working with Charlotte County to bring in potable water for residents.

While projections predict the Cape’s population will double by buildout, Coviello hopes to still keep a somewhat “small town feel” despite the hustle and bustle increasing locally.

“I think we want to try to make sure that we don’t become a Miami,” Coviello said. “We’re not going to cram in high-density units all over the place. It is allowed in certain places, but not all of the city — that will somewhat curtail the ability to have an over-populous city.”

Mazurkiewicz said the city needs to hold onto what has made it successful in the first place moving forward.

“We have all the pieces in place to fulfill our destiny, we just have to make sure we don’t lose any of that,” Mazurkiewicz said. “As the new developments come in, we have to make sure they are consistent with the community principles that got us this far.”

Hamman said the Cape is in a great spot for the future.

“The city is laid out really well,” Hamman said. “It’s got a great grid network. Now, we need to work on supporting Cape Coral as they build out commercial corridors on their other north/south roadways (Santa Barbara Boulevard, Burnt Store Road, Chiquita Boulevard).”

He said he has enjoyed seeing Cape Coral become not just a place for retirees, but a place to raise a family.

“I think it’s been great to see families come to Cape Coral and find a real opportunity here to buy a house they can afford and get a little piece of the ‘American dream,'” Hamman said. “I think that’s the best thing about Cape Coral — it’s what my family’s doing. I look forward to hopefully building a community where my kids will want to stay and raise their families and find good-paying jobs.”

Part of keeping those families safe includes the expansion of local law enforcement and public safety.

“We want to maintain being one of the safest cities in Florida as our population grows,” Coviello said. “As we grow, our public services need to grow as well. We have to plan for that and make sure we have proper personnel, and I believe we’re doing that.”

New fire stations are in the works for Cape Coral in the coming years and officials are ensuring the ratio of first responders to residents in the community is acceptable.

Coviello said a big initiative the city took on was to raise compensation for police officers, which he said were leaving for higher-paying jobs elsewhere after training. CCPD officers are now among the highest paid in the county, if not the state, with a starting salary of $55,000, said Coviello.

“We’re no longer the training group for officers to leave, because that was an issue at one point,” Coviello said. “We would train these officers and because of the level of pay, they would leave and go somewhere else. It costs a lot of money to train an officer and equip them their first year. We certainly want to have a progressive program that not only gets us the best quality individual for the position, but we want to retain those people.”

As the population continues to rise in the Cape, officials at Lee Health are keeping a close eye on the needs of the community.

Lee Health Chief Operating Officer Scott Nygaard said the system is constantly looking at the balance of beds and services throughout the entire county.

With Southwest Florida being somewhat of a seasonal area, Nygaard said the needs of the current population are being met.

“We’re looking at the Cape carefully,” Nygaard said. “We’re very specifically interested and committed to the Cape and definitely want to keep a close eye and continue to expand our service.

“Today, we don’t see an immediate need (for extra beds) in-season. We do periodically have some transfers out of the Cape in season, out-of-season, we generally close an entire unit or so because we don’t have the volume.

“That’s probably the hardest thing about this market; the up and down of it. It’s not a steady market, it still tends to be fairly seasonal and (we have to determine) staffing and figure out the right mix of beds and other services.”

When it comes to building another hospital in the Cape, Nygaard said Lee Health has been looking closely at the development in the city, particularly as the UEP project moves north.

“We’re tracking that closely and we’ve met with Mayor Coviello a couple different times trying to line up with the city’s planning development and what opportunities exist,” he said. “In north Cape, we’re very sensitive to try and figure out what’s the right configuration of services which is a mix of (services).”

Cape Coral Hospital does have a plan in place if they were to have an influx of patients and so a need for increased capacity.

“We do have the ability at Cape Coral Hospital to add two floors and add additional beds,” Nygaard said. “We would have to build a parking ramp similar to what was done at Gulf Cost Medical Center. We’ve looked at that and have done some preliminary planning to look and add to the campus if need be.”

Nygaard said the county’s health care leader is refreshing its data regularly on population growth in Cape Coral.

“It’s ongoing,” he said. “Every year we refresh that data and take a hard look and make sure we’re not looking just short term, but long term into the future.”

One new program coming to Cape Coral Hospital in the future is a general internal medicine residency program that will begin in 2022. The hospital will take on eight residents in a given year for what will be a three-year program.

“We’ll have 24 new internal medicine residents there with the plan to keep many of those physicians in the community and providing service when they graduate,” Nygaard said.

With COVID-19 affecting health care systems across the globe, telemedicine has provided a way for patients to see doctors from the comfort of their homes — a trend that could continue going forward.

“I think yes, we intend that (telemedicine) will retain a higher level of use and be a service option for the foreseeable future,” Nygaard said. “We’re in the early phase of looking at what’s called a ‘hospital at home’ model using some of those remote services.”

Nygaard said telehealth could be used for lower acute needs that might not absolutely need to be serviced in the hospital.

“Simple things that could be cared for outside the walls of a hospital or bed,” he said. “Which is a benefit both to the patients in being home but also reduces risk of secondary infection that can occur in the hospital.

“(This plan) is in the early phase but we have been looking at other places where they’ve developed that type of an approach and that might shift the use of beds, too.”

 

–Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj

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