Harbor Style Harbor Style June 2017 : Page 81
FORWARD The cities of Punta Gorda and North Port, along with Charlotte County, expect to see big changes in the future. Story by Nancy J. Semon I Photography by Steve Donaldson what will take place in the future, our governmental leaders do try to foresee changes such as population growth, new business development and new commercial and residential construction. And all these things are happening right now in our community as Charlotte County and the surrounding areas are booming. One only has to drive through Punta Gorda, many parts of Charlotte County and North Port in southern Sarasota County to see that the landscape is, indeed, changing. Construction seems to be going on everywhere, and if you haven’t been to a certain area in several months, chances are you will see new businesses that have opened and new homes being built since your last visit. Welcome to our corner of Southwest Florida, where change is underway. Our city and county leaders say it is all for the better. Recently HARBOR STYLE interviewed the mayors of Punta Gorda and North Port – Rachel Keesling and Linda Yates, respectively, as well as Charlotte County Commissioner Stephen R. Deutsch to ask what new things we can expect to see in the next 5-10 years. Here is what they told us. ³ Looking W hile we really can’t predict HARBOR STYLE | 81
Nancy J. Semon
The cities of Punta Gorda and North Port, along with Charlotte County, expect to see big changes in the future.
While we really can’t predict what will take place in the future, our governmental leaders do try to foresee changes such as population growth, new business development and new commercial and residential construction. And all these things are happening right now in our community as Charlotte County and the surrounding areas are booming. One only has to drive through Punta Gorda, many parts of Charlotte County and North Port in southern Sarasota County to see that the landscape is, indeed, changing. Construction seems to be going on everywhere, and if you haven’t been to a certain area in several months, chances are you will see new businesses that have opened and new homes being built since your last visit.
Welcome to our corner of Southwest Florida, where change is underway. Our city and county leaders say it is all for the better. Recently HARBOR STYLE interviewed the mayors of Punta Gorda and North Port – Rachel Keesling and Linda Yates, respectively, as well as Charlotte County Commissioner Stephen R. Deutsch to ask what new things we can expect to see in the next 5-10 years.
Here is what they told us.
Governing a city of some 18,368 permanent residents – more than 37,000 during season – amid new construction and other changes keeps Mayor Rachel Keesling more than busy. But she did manage to take time out from her hectic schedule to discuss Punta Gorda’s future with us.
“Punta Gorda is emerging from the downturn and activity is picking up,” she said.
Now that the city’s snowbirds have returned to their respective northern homes, what new changes will they see when they return this coming winter? The biggest change will be new construction. “Residential construction has been increasing and the housing market has strengthened,” she said. Keesling cited more commercial building and remodels of older buildings that continue to “gain momentum,” she said.
Another major addition to the city is the expansion of Western Michigan University, she added.
In prior years, the city had approved a 1 cent increase to its sales tax and that, Keesling said, has enabled the city to make various improvements to its parks, recreational facilities and public areas. Keesling said the additional monies have allowed the city to revamp Gilchrist Park “...and the soon-to-be super-fabulous Gilchrist Park Playground,” she related. “Our waterfront amenities continue to evolve and many improvements are in the works, including a Harborwalk expansion around Fishermen’s Village.”
One of the more popular attractions in the area – Peace River Wildlife Center, located in the equally popular Ponce Park – will undergo a “complete redesign,” she pointed out. The current location of the Center is being moved to another part of the park, where it will have new buildings and structures for the wildlife.
But with progress comes some inconvenience. “You may have to adjust your routine and avoid the moving of the dirt, but eventually our parks and public spaces will be even more accessible for all to enjoy,” the mayor said.
After Hurricane Charley ravaged the area in 2004, including the City Marketplace lot downtown, there finally is building activity. “Marriott Springhill Suites is being built,” Keesling noted, adding that previous city councils have approved variances for hotels on this property, “but economic conditions at the time prevented the developments from occurring and the variances expired.” She said that the proposed hotel is in line with “strategic objectives to support and promote business development opportunities on the Marketplace property.” Furthermore, she said, it will benefit future opportunities at the Charlotte Harbor Event and Conference Center. One of the things that Punta Gorda has needed is more hotel rooms, Keesling noted.
Because of the hurricane, many of the local landmarks in Punta Gorda have been rebuilt and “many new additions have emerged to create a unique, walkable city,” Keesling said. Parks and pathways have been improved, and now visitors can ride or walk to the downtown section, Fishermen’s Village and other commercial areas. The goal is to “create the best places to live, work and visit while maintaining our unique character.”
For the future, Keesling would like to see “responsible growth, particularly in the commercial sector.” She said the city has had a strategic priority for many years to increase the percentage of commercial versus residential tax base. This hopefully would mean good news for the residential property owner!
Look for the City of Punta Gorda to continue its bicycle infrastructure pilot projects. Additionally, she said that the city is undergoing a “strategic branding initiative which includes bringing stakeholders into the fold to help us define our brand,” much like the Charlotte County Visitor Bureau recently did. Word is getting out about our area’s “great weather, amenities and activities,” she said. But those of us who live in this area already know this!
The population of Punta Gorda continues to grow; year-round population is up 1,727 from 2010, according to the Bureau of Economics and Business Growth. Keesling said that by 2020 the city population is projected to be 18,742, jumping to 20,953 by 2030. Noting that Punta Gorda has an older workforce (Charlotte County ranks second in the percentage of people 65 and older; Sumter County, home of The Villages, comes in at number one), Keesling said a challenge is “to recruit and retain younger people to work within the city.”
To get out the word about Punta Gorda – “the little city with a great big heart” – its savvy leaders rely on marketing. “Physical attributes, historical resources, economic assets and climate, arts and tourism endeavors are being promulgated by our marketing firm, Aqua,” Keesling explained. “The end goal is to garner strategies that the city can employ to portray our small town to the outside world.”
But the city’s leaders work for citizens, and their needs and wishes are first and foremost on the minds of those who make decisions. “Strategic planning has been the cornerstone of the city’s recovery and success. These goal-setting exercises have directed the city forward, despite obstacles, natural disasters and economic hardships. Careful consideration of future development will remain one the most important functions of our city government,” Keesling said. “‘You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been’ has also held true for the city. We have committed to preserving our history for future generations and that has set us apart from other places. We also continue to engage our public to not only maintain a high quality of life, but to enhance services to keep our citizens not only satisfied but proud of the place that they have chosen to live.”
In brief, we can expect to see a city in which one can get from one neighborhood to another without relying on a car, with more businesses and more job opportunities, and an ever-growing cultural community in an area that maintains and improves its parks and other public spaces. And yes, many more hotel rooms.
Charlotte County Tourism and Economic Development recently wrapped up its new brands – “Our best side is Outside,” reflecting the area’s unparalleled natural resources, and “Your Business. Cleared for Takeoff,” portraying a positive outlook on strengthening the local economy. These slogans surely will describe Punta Gorda’s future if its city and county leaders have their way.
North Port continues to grow in population. Its 2016 estimated population was 64,472, but “it is close to 67,000 now,” said North Port Mayor Linda Yates. She said that projections show an estimated 74,400 for 2020 and 83,100 by 2025. Its seasonal population is an additional 8 percent, she added. North Port is the eighth largest city by land mass in Florida, encompassing 104 square miles, and it also has a younger population whose median age in 2011-15 was 44, according to the American Community Survey. This compares to a median age of 66 in Punta Gorda. Since 2000, North Port’s population has grown 164.9 percent, according to statistics, and the city is just 29 percent built out, Yates said.
Because of its vast land size, there are plenty of green spaces and parks, plus neighborhoods where the average lot size is more than three acres. Homeowners can even have horses on their land in certain areas. The heart of the city is the older part of town. Then there are golf course communities, 55-plus developments and ethnic neighborhoods – the area has a rich Russian, Ukrainian and Serbian culture with a number of Orthodox churches.
“There is a lot of diversity here; we have so many different areas,” Yates said.
Indeed, driving around the city can take hours if one wants to explore its different areas and different flavors, if you will. Yates, who was a small business owner and marketing professional for nearly three decades, likes to say that there is “something for everyone in North Port.” For the future, the city is evolving as a place “where its citizens can live, work, shop, learn and recreate,” Yates said. She said her vision is that North Port has the good attributes associated with a city but with a small, hometown feel.
While the city’s greatest opportunities come from its large land mass size, there are also challenges. There are approximately 65,000 platted lots and that in itself “presents many challenges, including the limited non-residential land use areas for job-producing development and keeping the pace with the widespread growth to accommodate the additional needs for transportation capacity, utilities infrastructure and public services,” Yates said. Furthermore, there have to be adjustments to land use areas to help diversify the tax base. Also, implementation of capital projects “continue to be important measures for meeting the challenges in balancing the city’s growth and resources.”
Growth comes to mind when one thinks of North Port. Unlike other parts of Florida where development stalled during the recession, building soared in North Port during that time frame. Yates said that Benderson Development had planned to build what is now Cocoplum Plaza along US Highway 41 and not too far from the border of Charlotte County. Planning for the expansive shopping mall began in 2006-07. “They [Benderson Development] stuck with the plan and did it.” She said that all along, the private sector envisioned the potential of North Port, and more changes and development are underway.
“US 41, Sumter/Price and Toledo Blade will see a sizable change with numerous developments in the works,” Yates revealed. “The Cocoplum Village Shops on US 41 are about to get much larger with development on the property behind and next to Racetrack.” Also in the works are a number of commercial and retail establishments coming on the corners of Price and Sumter. “The West Villages is exploding with new homes and 100,000 square feet of commercial [space] to be added to the area,” Yates continued. And along Toledo Blade, development has begun for a variety of businesses, including gas stations, apartments, commercial parcels and a King Plastics expansion. Construction of the Suncoast Technical College is projected for completion in early fall. “There have been some improvements at the city’s renowned Warm Mineral Springs attraction and progress is being made on development of a master plan for restoration of the buildings and other site improvements. The city is also in the process of planning and conceptual design for an aquatic facility project at Butler Park,” she said.
The city’s natural assets – Warm Mineral Springs and the 8,000 acre Myakka State Forest – have attracted developers with an interest in building hotels to house visiting tourists and scientists from far and wide. “More people in Europe know and utilize Warm Mineral Springs” than locals, Yates pointed out. Scientists come to Little Knoll Springs to search for artifacts, and scientists from the University of Miami can be seen at Little Salt Springs. Also, North Port has more than nine miles of the Myakkahatchee Creek, an abundance of walking trails and some 81 miles of freshwater canals.
Because of its younger population, North Port has two high schools – one charter and one public; three middle schools – two public and one charter; and five elementary schools...so far.
There is an entertainment and performing arts center at North Port High School that has been so successful “that the city of Venice mirrored ours and created one of their own,” Yates said with pride. Yet, home and property taxes remain relatively low, all things considered.
Yates said that her vision for the City of North Port is to include the public in carrying forward the comprehensive plan for the community.
The mayor, a New Yorker who moved to Ohio and from Ohio to North Port, clearly is a fan of the city she governs. “I moved here because I loved the city and its natural environment.” She added that she was drawn to its abundance of trees and the fact that the city is quiet. She repeatedly said that her vision is to have North Port sustain its quality of life while providing amenities to residents who would not have to leave their city for recreation and other pursuits.
“What attracted me to the city was primarily its natural setting, clean appearance, layout of land uses, affordability, easy access to beaches and other destinations and the overall friendly atmosphere,” Yates said. Look for bigger and better things in the years ahead for the big city with the small town feel.
One of Charlotte County’s biggest fans is Commissioner Stephen R. Deutsch. A former New Yorker, Deutsch exudes so much enthusiasm for the county that one would think he was a native son. Helping to govern the county of 175,000 people, Deutsch spoke of new things about to come to our area.
He said he expects a shift in the next 5-10 years with the presence of Western Michigan University at the Florida SouthWestern State College campus in Punta Gorda. WMU will offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees and will draw both students and professors to our area, he said. It could very well be in the coming decade that the county, which has the distinction of being the second-oldest county age-wise in the nation, becomes much younger, overall, thanks to a thriving college community.
What attracts people to Charlotte County, Deutsch said, is “first, our beautiful climate.” In addition, recreational activities, beautiful parks and other amenities continue to attract visitors and residents. But in order to attract a population other than retirees or students, there has to be a good job market, and that, too, is something that will be changing in the future. “Cheney Brothers indicated they will be expanding,” Deutsch said. Other businesses, too, have shown interest in coming to our area. In addition to Culver’s opening several locations in the county, there are plans for a new 7-11 and a manufacturing warehouse. Oh, and for transplanted northerners from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, we now have a WaWa on Midway Boulevard!
But the county does face a challenge. “We have a real shortage of affordable housing,” Deutsch said. He said also that with a population averaging more than 60 years old, the area lacks a skilled workforce of younger people. But he referred back to Western Michigan University, saying that the presence of the school will no doubt change the area’s demographics.
Charlotte County is one of diversity, Deutsch pointed out. “We have old Florida in Englewood and the historic ambiance in Punta Gorda which have special charm.” Also, one of the unique things in Punta Gorda is the airport, which continues to offer flights to more cities. “The airport is doing a fantastic job,” he added.
The Board of Commissioners has been having “serious discussions with a high-tech 3D printing business,” Deutsch related. And in the Murdock area, “we are aggressively moving ahead with a combination of residential, commercial and retail [establishments],” adding that we should be seeing those changes in the next couple of years at Murdock Village.
One can’t help but think of Babcock Ranch when it comes to big changes for the future. Deutsch cited the development, saying that the nation’s first solar city has finally come to fruition. “Syd Kitson [the Babcock developer] had a dream and his dream has become a reality.” He said that the Babcock school is already at full enrollment.
Every leader has a wish list, and Deutsch is no exception. He said he would like to see more affordable housing in our area, and he would encourage light industry to locate here. He said we need a highly-skilled workforce, and he said that if plans go well, we will have a high-tech center at the southern corner of the Murdock Village property.
Infrastructure is also a high priority, and the county is focusing on improving roads on Edgewater, Midway, Gasparilla and the area of Forrest Nelson.
We asked Deutsch whether the county would get a transportation system similar to SCAT in Sarasota County, but he said the county does have a doorto- door transportation system in place already. The former Dial-A-Ride – now called Charlotte Transit – costs $2 per fare. “You make the appointment the day before,” he said.
It was time for Deutsch to head off to yet another meeting, but he gave us a sense that if the commissioners have their way, a skilled workforce, more jobs, light industry, affordable housing and a thriving college community are just some of the things we can look forward to in the future.
One of the more popular attractions in the area – Peace River Wildlife Center, located in the equally popular Ponce Park – will undergo a “complete redesign.”
“There is a lot of diversity here; we have so many different areas.”
What attracts people to Charlotte County is “first, our beautiful climate” in addition to recreational activities, beautiful parks and other amenities.
Read the full article at http://trendmag2.trendoffset.com/article/Looking+Forward/2788884/409361/article.html.