More than 230 SanCap Chamber business members and island residents learned this week that the city of Sanibel finances are stable, real estate values remain steady, and 70 percent of island businesses have come back in some capacity. The 2-1/2-hour State of the Islands Summit and breakfast held Jan. 29 at the Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort & Spa in Fort Myers brought nearly 20 speakers and panelists to the podium to assess Sanibel and Captiva’s hurricane recovery before a sell-out crowd.
The SanCap Chamber, in partnership with the Charitable Foundation of the Islands (CFI) and with sponsorship from Bank of the Islands and other local businesses, presented the summit. Dr. Amir Neto, director of the Regional Economic Research Institute at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, was the keynote speaker, disclosing findings from a survey the chamber has asked local businesses to complete.
Based on surveys received to date, Neto presented a benchmark standard for future outlooks to come. “This does not pinpoint numbers, but shows trends,” he said, indicating that predicting a timeline for the return of accommodations and non-accommodations businesses is a process that will take time. “It’s going to be a long-term recovery…. This is where we come into our crossroads to decide which path we want to take to grow Southwest Florida, to grow the islands.”
The 70 percent figure of reopened businesses, he explained, includes those who have moved off-island and those doing business online or remotely without a storefront. To view the full business climate survey report, visit sancapoutlook.com.
The summit also presented three panels to explore recovery within different facets of island operations. CFI’s Dolly Farrell moderated the first panel, State of Non-Profits, which also included Sam Ankerson with Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum & Aquarium, Maria Espinoza of F.I.S.H. of SanCap, James Evans of Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, Bill Harkey for “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society, and Nicole McHale of Community Housing & Resources.
They addressed challenges and issues including affordable housing, transportation frustrations, and food insecurity. The panelists recognized the importance of accommodations, the business community, and the maintenance of the islands’ environmental priorities.
“Our business community and our conservation community are inextricably linked,” said Evans. “The way businesses and our nonprofits work together it’s just seamless…That’s exactly what we need to get our vitality back is to get resort housing back up…. We always support the chamber of commerce for getting back up on their feet. The chamber needs your help as well.”
The State of Real Estate panel, likewise, recognized the importance of the islands’ environment and nonprofits in elevating property values and desirability. Sanibel & Captiva Islands Association of Realtors CEO Bill Robinson moderated the panel consisting also of Kasey Albright and Eric Pfeiffer of Pfeiffer Realty Group and Jeff Burns of Premier Sotheby’s International Realty. Royal Shell Real Estate’s Mike McMurray had to cancel due to the flu.
The panel discussed in detail the status of residential, condominium, commercial, and vacant land availability and sales. The panelists generally agreed Sanibel is seeing a shift in age demographics as a result of the hurricane, with younger families moving in and older residents moving off-island because of anticipated long waits to get back into their homes.
“But it’s the same type of people, people who love Sanibel,” said Pfeiffer. In his conclusion of commercial property status, he reported, based on limited available data, the average and median price has increased after the storm.
“What I really want to tell you today is that the city of Sanibel, from a financial perspective, we are in excellent shape, we are stable and we are firm,” city manager Dana Souza told the crowd as part of the State of the City presentation, moderated by public information officer Eric Jackson. Deputy city manager/CFO Steve Chaipel and building official Craig Mole also spoke.
Souza reported on the decrease in taxable property values, which influenced the decision to increase the millage rate this year to the same rate as post-hurricane Charley. “That was a tough decision,” he said. He repeatedly thanked the state of Florida for coming to the city’s rescue in so many monetary ways, including an advance on monies to help with current beach renourishment. Souza commended city staff for its expediency with permitting. Mole reported 7,700 permits since the storm, compared to 1,800 in a normal year before Ian.
Panelists addressed affordable housing issues, saying the city is looking both on and off island for solutions. Souza explained the city’s new policy for bringing traffic issues back to pre-hurricane status by urging everyone to travel on and off island via Periwinkle Way rather than backroad routes through neighborhoods. Souza reported the plan has already reduced his travel time leaving the island.
Mayor Richard Johnson wrapped up the summit meeting’s roster of speakers with hope, optimism, and a message of working together: “We all here are linked to each other by these islands we know and we love.”
“We heard an incredible volume of take-away information this day,” said John Lai, president and CEO of the SanCap Chamber. “It was a truly inspiring and pragmatic exercise for so many in our community looking for answers and guidance. This is only the beginning of our series of recovery outlooks, which we will continue monthly at our business luncheons. We urge all island businesses to participate in the survey.”
The next business luncheon will take place Wednesday, Feb. 21, at Sanibel Harbour Marriott with guest speakers Benjamin R. Siegel, executive director, and Steven Hennigan, interim executive director, presenting an update on the future of Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW). Stevens Construction will sponsor the meeting.
ABOUT SANCAP CHAMBER
The SanCap Chamber of Commerce is dedicated to promoting the prosperity of its members and preserving the quality of life of our community. The Chamber plays a key role in facilitating communication and cooperation between business, residents, and government to enhance the economic health of the islands. Its website, sanibel-captiva.org, receives over 1.3 million visits per year. For more information about the chamber, visit sanibel-captiva.org or contact John Lai, president and CEO, at 239-472-2348 or [email protected].