By Sean Hartman, Cape Coral Watchdog

Many of you have already read the Cape Coral Daily Breeze reporting from Chuck Ballaro about the North 1 UEP assessment increase.  I am not covering that portion of the meeting in this Council Watch because Chuck did a fantastic job spelling it out in great detail and, quite frankly, I am stretched thin with numerous professional responsibilities (and need I remind my readers that I do this pro bono as a public service.

However, I do want to make sure the public is aware that this will be on the agenda at the February 2nd meeting, which will be at 4:30 P.M. at City Hall.  If you are a resident of North 1 and want to voice your opinions on this assessment increase, that would be the time to do it.

Thank you to my fellow journalists at the Daily Breeze for their extraordinary work. – Sean Hartman, The Cape Coral Watchdog

Citizens’ Input Time

(We apologize in advance for any misspellings of names.)

Bruce Marvin, a resident of District 3, spoke about affordable housing, noting a particularly overpriced house that was sold in his neighborhood, along with four others, that were purchased by a private corporation.  

“In last Sunday’s paper, I noticed a home in District 3, about blocks north of my home, selling for $2,230,227.  That sort of got my interest,” said Bruce. 

He continued to describe the average nature of the house, before adding its assessed value, is about $280,000 according to the Lee County Property Appraiser

“While selling one’s home for ten times the assessed value is good for the seller and the realtor that brokered it, I’m not sure this is good for affordable housing,” said Bruce, before expressing concern for money laundering for such purchases.

City Manager Rob Hernandez responded that the LLC in question, Lamco Asset Company 1, purchased numerous homes for the $2.2 million price, which included multiple properties.

There has been a national trend where both domestic and foreign investors purchase homes to turn into rentals.  Some of these foreign investors come from the People’s Republic of China, which has led some states, including Florida, to restrict such purchases.  

Lamco Asset Company 1 is registered as a “foreign limited-liability company” in North Carolina, with an address in Texas.  It was registered in December of last year, making the company barely a month old, yet somehow able to make multimillion-dollar real estate purchases. 

Nothing to see here, though.  Move along.

New EBDO Director, Who’s This?

Cape Coral’s Economic and Business Development Office (EBDO) has a new Director, Sharon Woodberry, who gave her first Economic Report with a stellar welcome from District 4 Councilwoman Patty Cummings.  

Director Woodberry let the Council know that Cape Coral continues to have an absurdly low unemployment rate (with the most recent numbers at 3.5%,) a 2% vacancy in commercial and office space, and less than 1% vacancy in industrial space, which the City Manager praised. 

It should be noted there are limited areas where industry can occur in Cape Coral, and even then it is only light industry.  In this case, new industrial development is occurring exclusively in the Pine Island Corridor (there is an existing industrial zone on Viscaya near Cape Coral Hospital).

Retail construction is also centered in the Pine Island Corridor, but retail construction is occurring in every City Council district except District 2 (Dan Sheppard).  These include retail growth off of Santa Barbara, Veterans Parkway, and Downtown Cape Coral.

Woodberry detailed the ‘Open for Business‘ campaign that started after Hurricane Ian to reassure regular visitors that Cape Coral is, well, open for business.

Mayor John Gunter wants to see comparative data between Cape Coral and the Southwest Florida region, particularly on retail, industrial, and office space.  Both Mayor Gunter and District 3 Councilman Tom Hayden inquired about Lee Health’s projects.  City Manager Rob Hernandez said they “have a meeting scheduled” to discuss the developments.

“I’ve always stated that the Economic Development Department here in our city is probably one of the most important departments because it’s the future of our city,” said Mayor Gunter.  He asked what the city will be doing this year to promote Cape Coral.

“We’re on the same page with you,” said Director Woodberry.  “We actually talked about a marketing strategic plan for some of our efforts to get the word out and talk about Cape Coral.”

District 1 Councilman Bill Steinke, who sits on the Tourism Development Council on behalf of Cape Coral, recommended that EBDO and the Parks and Recreation Department make a presentation to the TDC, which they can use as they market Lee County across the country.

But it was District 4 Councilwoman Patty Cummings who put Director Woodberry through the fires of tribulation.  Prior to being elected to the City Council, Patty founded and ran Astro-Durance Bungee Fitness, a fitness enterprise with global reach.

Councilwoman Cummings first asked how much of Cape Coral’s city space should be industrial.  Cape Coral is famously pre-platted, meaning only 8% of the city can be used commercially.  Industrial and commercial zoning are far different categories (would you want to go shopping next to a steel mill?)  Director Woodberry did not know, estimating 3%-5% vacancy as the standard depending on the region.

“But we’ve also seen that industrial [development] has really taken off in the last few years,” Director Woodberry added.  “There’s going to be a lot of onshoring that is happening, so those spaces are being snapped up.  It is a demand that’s there that we’re working to try to meet.”

City Manager Rob Hernandez noted additional hindrances to industrial development in Cape Coral: our lack of close proximity to an airport, railways, or interstate.

“You’ll never see us get to the point where we are comparable with other jurisdictions because we just don’t have the transportation infrastructure,” said the City Manager.

Councilwoman Cummings then asked about where EBDO is marketing and if they are utilizing current businesses and industries in marketing.  Director Woodberry mentioned they spoke to industrial businesses about supply chains and emphasized the Midwest as the target market.

“Based on some of the information we have, I think it makes sense to really hit the Midwest area hard,” said Director Woodberry.  “We see a lot of individuals who are relocating from the Chicago area here.”

When Councilwoman Cummings asked how marketing is done, City Manager Rob Hernandez answered instead of Director Woodberry.  The City Manager detailed a number of marketing strategies, including a number of conventions that the city has attended in the past.  They also market regionally in newspapers and partner with Lee County, “piggy-backing” off of their marketing strategy.

The City Manager also mentioned an advertising strategy at both RSW and Punta Gorda Airports.  “I want the Punta Gorda airport to be known as the Cape Coral airport,” said the CIty Manager.

Councilwoman Cummings asked for more details on their marketing strategy.  City Manager Rob Hernandez responded that normally they don’t provide such detail, just summaries during their reports.  Mayor John Gunter backed up Councilwoman Cummings, asking for a more detailed report on marketing strategies.

District 2 Councilman Dan Sheppard asked if EBDO seeks out manufacturers like Norco, noting that the canals in Cape Coral could attract water-based manufacturers, e.g. boats, fishing supplies. He mentioned marine industries use Cape Coral to advertise their products but do not stay.

The City Manager responded that attracting those industries is “80% advertising,” but they spoke with Nortec and Eco-Labs, the two biggest industrial companies in Cape Coral, about their difficulties, which are primarily supply chain issues. 

But the City Manager wants to focus on small businesses, not attracting “big fish.”

“Our strength is not in going after the big fish,” said the City Manager.  “Because of the challenges we have, we’re not going to land the big fish.  But it’s going after the small ones.”

Council Says NO to Moving Citizens’ Input Time

District 5 Councilman Bobby Welsh brought up his proposal to move Citizens’ Input Time to the end of the meeting.  Councilman Welsh believes this will allow for more citizens to have input because many 9-to-5 workers can’t make it to the 4:30 P.M. meeting.  

Current policy dictates that the Mayor sets the agenda and could theoretically move Citizens Input Time at will.  Mayor John Gunter, who had voiced his opposition to the proposal at a prior meeting, and reiterated that opposition again, wanted to discuss it with the Council as a whole to find “consensus.”

“I think what we need to do is have a consensus moving forward,” said Mayor Gunter.  “If that’s the will of the Council, I’m okay with it.  For me personally, I don’t agree with it. I think we keep it where it is because…there’s some items that we really don’t even discuss, like the consent agenda.  So if we put the Citizens’ Input to the rear of the meeting, those residents that may want to have a discussion on consent agenda items, we’ve already passed [those items].”

Mayor Gunter is right, of course.  Everyone knows that citizens are extremely vocal about such consent agenda items as an agreement with Superior Landscaping to mow the medians off of Nicholas Parkway or approving a space needs study for Cape Coral’s facilities.  And who can forget back in October the dozens of people who spoke out against consent agenda item four, which authorized the purchase and delivery of polyacrylic acid anti-salient?  

District 3 Councilman Bobby Welsh rebutted by noting the Lee County Commission, who he’s using as the template (as they have their Citizens’ Input Time at the end) has a separate comment time for the consent agenda, similar to how there’s separate public input for different agenda item during a normal City Council meeting.

Most Councilmembers agreed with Mayor Gunter.  Councilman Hayden believes that the later time frame will discourage attendance due to the late time, rather than encourage it.  Councilmembers Jessica Cosden and Dan Sheppard recommended an additional Citizens’ Input Time at the end as a compromise.

District 4 Councilwoman Patty Cummings also agreed not to change the time, but agreed with her one-time political rival that residents who work and have families can’t always attend the meetings at 4:30.  

“There is an e-comment link on our website,” said City Manager Rob Hernandez.  “Once we resumed normal operations following COVID, the Council discontinued reading the e-comments into the record.  However, the e-comments are shared with all members of Council, staff, and they are made part of the official records.”

Cummings Stonewalled on Facebook Live

District 4 Councilwoman Patty Cummings has asked the City Manager and city staff about streaming City Council meetings on Facebook Live, and after months of being stonewalled in private, she has decided to bring it up in public.  

Currently, City Council meetings are streamed live via YouTube.  It used to be that the livestream was public and easy to access, but it has since gone private and can only be accessed via a link.  That link can be found on the website, if you look hard enough, because it is not easy to find.

“I know I brought this to you in November and I brought it to you again in December,” said Councilwoman Cummings.  “I know I brought it to you several times so it’s not once or twice, it’s been several times.”

That’s right, Councilwoman Cummings asked in November.  Councilwoman Cummings asked in December.  Councilwoman Cummings asked in a box.  Councilwoman asked with a fox.  Councilwoman Cummings asked in a house.  Councilwoman Cummings asked with a mouse.  And she was stonewalled each time.

“We are on social media as it is now, YouTube Live” Councilwoman Cummings continued, confident her criticisms will correct the communications crisis.  “So it’s the same format except it is Facebook and we’re not asking to interact with the citizens.  It’s just so they can see us.  It’s easier for them, at their fingertips.  If they want to make comments, they can make comments, and we as a dais can kind of see how they’re feeling about certain ideas that we have up here as a whole or individually.”

City Manager Rob Hernandez stonewalled again, saying that they were waiting for a review from the City Attorney’s Office, a review that presumably started back in November when Councilwoman Cummings first asked.  Unfortunately, City Attorney Dolores Menendez (whose tenure in office began back in the George W. Bush Administration) did not take too kindly to being thrown under the bus.  According to the City Attorney, there was a clear “miscommunication” between city staff and her office.

“I was under the impression that it was going to be staff memos and we were going to combine with that,” said the City Attorney.  “The concern of the City Attorney’s Office is not putting the meetings on Facebook Live or to put the meetings on FB live.   The concern has become when people are commenting in real-time during hearings, for example, and they are making comments, especially during quasi-judicial hearings, are you all taking those comments into consideration even though they’re not under oath?  Also, are any of you, in real-time, communicating with members of the public, and are more than one of you communicating?”

If the City Manager hoped for backup from the City Attorney, however, he would not get it.  In her legal opinion, there is no restriction on putting City Council meetings on Facebook Live.  The legal questions arise with the comments themselves.  In theory, if comments are disabled, the Livestream can continue without any legal problems arising.  

“You’re free to put the meeting on Facebook Live,” said Menendez, her words unambiguous and not open to interpretation.  “Great caution should be exercised in terms of the commenting.”

Councilwoman Cummings then asked if the same video posted on YouTube recapping the meetings can be put on Facebook.  Communications Director Melissa Mickey confirmed that they could do that, but she also differed to the City Attorney, who again provided her professional legal opinion that the City can post on Facebook.

There was consensus that the video could be shared on both Facebook and YouTube as long as City Council does not comment directly to those commenting on the livestream to keep with legal constraints.

The Collaboratory Wants to Partner with Cape Coral for Big Goals

The Collaboratory wants to solve all major social problems with Southwest Florida in 18 years and wants to partner with the City Government to achieve this Sisyphian goal.  The nonprofit organization has been around since the 1970s as a community foundation, but has decided to rebrand and become a problem-solving think tank instead of a charity.  

According to the Collaboratory, they intend to solve every problem through “a highly inclusive approach to connect and coordinate innovators and problem-solvers.”  Sarah Owen, CEO of the Collaboratory, noted that most charities try to solve one particular issue, but most issues are interconnected.

“All of these problems are connected to each other,” said the spokeswoman.  “Let’s take a look at economic opportunity.  A number of years ago, our foundation said we could just tackle economic opportunity and things would be much better.  But what we found quickly is it was really connected to the strength of the public schools.  But the strength of public schools is connected to early childhood learning, that’s connected to maternal health.  So if you just pick one of these out and try to solve it and don’t look at all of them, nothing is going to change.”

“There are not a hundred different problems.  There’s one large entanglement with a hundred entangled symptoms,” she concluded.  “It’s all connected.”

Sarah explained that a lot of the issue with social services is there is a lack of coordination between the various stakeholders, e.g. nonprofits, businesses, religious and community organizations, and governments.  She believes a unifying regional goal (in this case, solving every problem in 18 years) and an improved chain of command will resolve this.

The Collaboratory is not asking anything from the City Council, but rather inviting the City Government to be involved in their mission.

District 3 Councilman Tom Hayden invited the Collaboratory to speak.  “Obviously, it turns your head a bit when you hear ‘solving everything in 18 years.’  But you gotta start somewhere.”

“I think we spend a lot of time discussing new ordinances, a budget, land use changes, zoning changes,” Councilman Hayden continued.  “But all of what she just talked about is all interconnected to where we’re at and finding ways to make a difference is important.”

Parks GO Bond Update

City staff presented its regular update of the Parks GO Bond progress, with three parks completed: Cultural Park, Gator Trail, and Giuffrida Park, all three of which are under budget. However additional costs will be accrued to replace trees damaged by Hurricane Ian and add shaded structures at Cultural Park and Gator Trail.

The Del Prado Linear Park and Sands Park are 95% complete and Joe Coviello PArk is 60% complete.  All three parks are experiencing supply chain delays, specifically for the restrooms that would be installed.  

Yellow Fever Creek is set to be completed in August.  Lake Kennedy Racquet Center will begin construction in March.  Festival Park will begin bidding next month, followed by Lake Mead and Crystal Lake in March.  

Mayor John Gunter pulled a 2018 ordinance that appropriated $2.4 million for both Cultural Park and Gator Trail and asked why the current budget for both parks was more than double that amount ($5.3 million). Specifically, Mayor Gunter was inquiring when City Council approved the increase.  He asked the City Manager to follow up with Council on those and other discrepancies.

“I’m well aware our cost overruns are going to be higher than anticipated,” said Mayor Gunter.  “That’s a given.  I’m just trying to see where we are with these inflated costs for each one of these parks.”

Financial Services Director Mark Mason did not have an answer, but noted that the costs were still below the $60 million bond rate, implying that Cultural Park and Gator Trail were more important than the dozen other parks receiving GO Bond funding.  City Manager Rob Hernandez noted that there was $12.5 million in reserves that can also offset costs, approved by the previous Council.

District 1 Councilman Bill Steinke pointed out that the GO Bond was for $60.15 million to be used for 31 parks including the Yacht Club, but costs are now $73.8 million WITHOUT the Yacht Club.  Paul Clinghan, Director of Capital Improvements, said that the Yacht Club has spun off into his own fund, which did not sit well with Councilman Steinke, whose district includes the historic Cape Coral club.

“So the money that was initially allocated from the GO Bond that would be contributory to the Yacht Club was moved to the other initiatives inside of the GO Bond,” said Councilman Steinke, “and on top of that we’re $13 million over the GO Bond.”

District 3 Councilman Tom Hayden asked about a new eagle’s nest at the site of Tropicana Park which may hinder building the park, but Paul Clinghan explained that when the eagles are gone they will destroy the nest in a process known as “taking.”

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