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Florida’s commerce secretary visits

Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce hosted Jamal Sowell to discuss business and other topics

By Nathan Mayberg - Editor | Jul 13, 2021

Florida Department of Commerce Secretary Jamal Sowell speaks with Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce President Jacki Liszak and Town of Fort Myers Beach Councilmember Jim Atterholt during a visit to Fort Myers Beach this past week. / Photo by Nathan Mayberg

Fort Myers Beach received a high-level visit from the cabinet of Gov. Ron DeSantis this past week when Florida Department of Commerce Secretary Jamal Sowell stopped by the offices of the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce.

Sowell, who was making his first visit to Fort Myers Beach, sat down with Chamber of Commerce President Jacki Liszak and Town of Fort Myers Beach Councilmember Jim Atterholt for an extended talk about Beach economic affairs.

Atterholt has a connection to Sowell going back to their days in government in Indiana and helped coordinate the visit.

Liszak spoke about the increasing summer activity on Fort Myers Beach, traffic issues, a need for workforce housing, and the impending Margaritaville project. Atterholt and Liszak both stressed the importance of water quality to the town, its residents and the economy.

“The water is our lifeblood,” Liszak said. “We can’t control what comes down the river.”

Atterholt forwarded a message of thanks to DeSantis for supporting Everglades restoration efforts with large amounts of funding for projects. “It’s the most non-partisan issue in politics,” Atterholt said.

Pointing outside the chamber’s window overlooking Estero Boulevard at a long line of traffic moving northward, Liszak said the scene has been a constant one all year. It’s one that is supposed to die down after spring break ends in April but has continued unabashed. The difference between this scene and one in April is “the traffic is moving,” Liszak said.

The activity is good for business and is an indicator of increased travel to the region with Fort Myers Beach enjoying a hotel occupancy rate of better than 90% even on weekdays, Liszak said. Normally, for this time of the season, hotel occupancy rates would be sitting in the 70’s on weekdays, she said. Vacation rentals are also filling up, Liszak said.

Airport numbers soared in May compared to 2019, according to the Lee County Visitors and Convention Bureau.

According to their data, the Southwest Florida International Airport experienced a record number of passengers for the month of May with 946,366. That figure represents a 30% increase over the previous record set in 2019 of 725,754. The record number for a single month remains March of 2019 with 1,482,239 passengers going through Southwest Florida International Airport.

Atterholt said the town’s challenge is re-developing properties and housing.

“The workforce housing is the biggest issue because our workers can’t afford to live where they work,” Atterholt said.

“Our workers are struggling to figure out a way get on and off the island,” Liszak said. “Parking is very limited on the island so they are paying $10, $20 … a day to park a car. How are you going to make a living?

“You just chewed up your salary, let alone a good portion of your tips and you haven’t even got to work yet,” Liszak said.

“And your time,” Atterholt said.

Sowell said the state can work with the town on the workforce housing issue as well as infrastructure projects. “The governor is big on infrastructure,” Sowell said. Municipalities can apply for grants to help with workforce housing projects that will support jobs, he said.

“That’s what we definitely need to do because it’s just going to get more difficult. It’s not going to get easier,” Liszak said. “The island’s only this big. We’re stretched out – every corner of it. So we have to get crafty how we’re providing these opportunities for our workers and for our business owners and for the future generations of people coming and at the same time we want to keep the residents on the island because we have a beach school and our enrollment just dropped under 100.”

Sowell said what makes Florida “so special” is that the majority of its residents are from out of state. Sowell said approximately 35% of Florida residents were born here. “There is so much growth here in Southwest Florida,” he said. “Fort Myers Beach is a great place for business.”

Sowell said he was “amazed” by his first trip to Fort Myers Beach. “This is phenomenal,” he said. “We have a bright future ahead of us.”

Liszak said “people have found us. They are spending big bux.”