Economic development

Make it work — here

On March 29, 2021, the New York Times declared that “remote work is here to stay. Manhattan may never be the same.” Businesses across America have invested heavily in technology and training, and are reconsidering office rental costs and encouraging employees to continue working from home. It’s impacting big city real estate markets, tax revenue and businesses—and their losses are fast becoming SWFL’s gain. 
As early as July last year, the Naples Daily News reported that many “new neighbors […] from New York, New Jersey, Miami or Fort Lauderdale” were arriving as Americans whose working lives had changed flocked to SWFL. Last week, they reported a 22.2% increase in median single-family home price in Lee County over the last year, and 17.4% in Collier. They quote multiple local realtors who say this is not a boom, but rather “a market correction, as our area has simply been undervalued until now.” Women for a Better Lee agrees. 
SWFL is a tropical paradise that boasts quality of life at an affordable price compared to big cities, and had attracted remote workers even before COVID. Now, reduced in-office time is leading city-dwellers to reconsider high housing costs and look for more space and an outdoor lifestyle. Even “super-commuters” who periodically fly in for meetings at their own expense can be ahead financially, compared to the price of a NYC shoebox. 

Working remotely in a tropical paradise

Some will read this in horror as they don’t want more growth, noise and traffic to impact our area’s natural beauty. That’s understandable. But there likely isn’t a choice in whether increased remote work impacts SWFL, as there is no practical way to stop people from bidding on a pool home in paradise if they wish to do so. “Cybercommuters are abandoning their windshield ice scrapers and choosing our region,” wrote Phil Fernandez, and we need to make the most of it. 
Remote work could be the opportunity Lee County needs to create lasting prosperity, since the old economic development strategy of subsidies for large employers didn’t bear fruit. This is a chance to attract hard-working taxpayers, with lower traffic impact as they don’t drive to work, many of whom want “walkable lifestyle” redevelopments near existing commercial districts or outdoor recreation (which typically have less environmental impact than new sprawl). Ironically, attracting the “BYO jobs” crowd could also create many small business jobs for locals, from food service to kids’ sports coaching and more. But if our leaders continue with business as usual, our pre-existing local crises—homelessness, housing unaffordability, environmental issues, crowded schools, traffic congestion — will make Lee County unappealing to the remote workers who could most benefit the area by moving here. 
That is why Women for a Better Lee is searching for our next generation of local leaders for our Board of County Commissioners. There are four keys to making this transition successful, in our analysis: housing, education, marketing, and technological infrastructure. Let’s be frank: Lee County’s all-male County Commission struggles with “kitchen table” issues like housing and education, as their current slate of local crises attests.  We need diversity at every level of government to make the most of this opportunity, and their resisting change is surely not the way to go.