Charlotte • Collier • Lee
Consisting of just three counties near the very bottom of the Florida peninsula, Southwest is this state’s smallest economic development region by size, but it packs a powerful punch.
What Southwest lacks in area, it more than makes up for in valuable assets and unwavering tenacity. Consider for example, that this region’s largest county — Collier — is also Florida’s second wealthiest, boasting a median income of $75,543 and a median home value of $594,299. Up the road in Lee County, the seaside city of Fort Myers holds the No. 3 position among fastest growing places in the U.S. 2023-24. And thanks to its prime location along busy I-75 between Tampa and Miami, Charlotte County continues to draw increased interest from logistics and distribution companies looking to streamline their operations.
On September 28, 2022, a Category 4 hurricane blew through this region wreaking havoc across all three counties. Among the devastation: more than 5,000 structures including roads and bridges leading to the wildly popular Sanibel and Pine Islands, both of which have, for years, helped Florida’s west coast promote its reputation as a “must-see destination.” In the year that has passed, clean-up continues, and Southwest Florida is close to a full recovery.
Logistics & Transportation
Texas-based lumber distribution company Dakota Premium Hardwoods has signed on as the first tenant to occupy the newly created Florida Gulf Coast Logistics Center, a 378,000-sq.-ft. facility located on the grounds of Enterprise Charlotte Airport Park. Dakota, which employs 25 people at the location, specializes in products for the cabinetry, millwork, furniture-making and woodworking industries. Equus Capital Partners, developer of the project, built the center on spec and launched a national campaign with hopes of having it fully leased by the time the work is complete. Waco, Texas-based Dakota is a distributor of lumber, engineered products and full-job packages such as support and fasteners. It has 11 locations in the U.S., including Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.
Meanwhile, Fort Myers continues to increase passenger traffic in and out of Southwest Florida International Airport, logging 737,527 passengers in October 2023, an increase of 70% over the previous year and its second-best October reported in 41 years.
In a recent expansion, Breeze Airways will add nine new nonstop routes from Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) in Fort Myers beginning in November 2023. Five of the markets are new to RSW: Akron-Canton, Ohio, three times weekly; and twice weekly each to New Orleans; Norfolk, Virginia; Richmond, Virginia; and Syracuse, New York. In addition, Breeze will add new routes to the following four cities: Pittsburgh, four times weekly; Columbus, Ohio, three times weekly; and Louisville and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, will each offer twice weekly service to Fort Myers. Also coming in November 2023: daily nonstop service to Toronto once each day via Porter Airlines.
And just next door in Collier County, Naples-based private charter company Elite Jets continues to grow with the addition of one pilot and two administrative team members. In June 2023, the Naples Airport joined a handful of airports nationwide offering a new kind of fuel for some aircraft that is deemed more environmentally friendly.
Alta Resources, a fixture in Fort Myers since 2013, recently unveiled its new $27-million Skyplex office complex where it expects to add some 350 jobs to its current staff of 700. Alta Resources supports Fortune 500 companies in business-process outsourcing and back office tasks such as sales, custom care and fulfillment. Headquartered in Neenah, Wisconsin, Alta currently employs 8,000 worldwide.
Tourism & Hospitality
More than a year has passed since Hurricane Ian blew through Florida’s Southwest as a Category 4 storm. And while all three of this region’s counties were significantly affected, it was Lee — and Fort Myers Beach in particular — that took the hardest hit. Recovering from a blow like this is never easy or quick, but in the year since Ian came to call, remarkable progress has been made.
Captiva Island, one of Florida’s most popular Gulf Coast destinations, has re-opened its 330-acre South Seas Resort in stages and plans to debut its brand new 12-hole Beau Welling re-designed short course called The Clutch before the end of this year.
And coming to Fort Myers Beach in early 2024: the highly anticipated $200-million Margaritaville Resort on six acres and featuring 254 rooms, a 45,000-sq.-ft. elevated terrace and ready access to the gulf via a pedestrian bridge over busy Estero Boulevard.
Meanwhile, there is tourism news to share from the two other counties comprising Florida’s Southwest region:
Up the road in Charlotte County, the $800-million Sunseeker Resort Charlotte Harbor continues to take shape. Originally expected to open in late 2020, the project has been stalled four times for a variety of reasons including COVID, a worksite fire and most recently, Hurricane Ian. The good news is that work on the resort has resumed intermittently, but as yet, there remains no word of an opening date. When finally completed, the Sunseeker Resort will have 785 rooms, 20 restaurants and bars, two pools, a spa and salon, an adults-only roof-top retreat, 60,000 square feet of meeting space, a harbor walk, an 18-hole golf course and a 117,000-sq.-ft. “ground level experience.”
In Collier County, Great Wolf Lodge South Florida has begun accepting reservations in anticipation of an October 2024 opening. The family-friendly resort currently under construction on 20 acres in east Collier, is expected to include: 500 family-friendly suites; a 60,000-sq.-ft. family entertainment center dubbed Great Wolf Adventure Park; a 90,000-sq.-ft. indoor water park; 8,000 square feet of conference space and several dining options.
Florida’s Southwest region is served by three primary health care systems — Lee Health with five hospitals in Lee County: Lee Memorial Hospital, HealthPark Medical Center, Gulf Coast Medical Center, Cape Coral Hospital and Golisano Children's Hospital; NCH Health Care with two hospitals in Collier County: NCH Baker and NCH North Naples; and in Charlotte County, two former Bayfront facilities re-branded as ShorePoint Health Port Charlotte and ShorePoint Health Punta Gorda.
In other health news:
Community and health care leaders recently celebrated the final pour of the foundation for Southwest Florida Proton, a cutting edge cancer treatment center currently under construction in Estero. First of its kind on Florida’s west coast, the facility will provide cancer patients with access to state-of-the-art technology, innovative cancer care and world-class radiation oncologists.
Southwest Florida is home to Florida Gulf Coast University, which was ranked No. 162 among Top Public Schools and No. 304 among National Universities by U.S. News & World Report’s 2024 findings. Top academic majors here are psychology, communications and health service preparation studies.
In 2023, Aysegul Timur, Ph.D., was tapped to become FGCU’s fifth president and the first woman to lead the university. An economist by training, Timur previously served as vice president and vice provost for strategy and program information at FGCU where she has worked since 2019.
Located here too is Florida SouthWestern State College offering baccalaureate, associate and certificate programs in Punta Gorda, Naples, Fort Myers and LaBelle, in addition to a Corporate Training Center in Bonita Springs, where programs can be tailored to fit the needs of Southwest employers. Also located in this region is Ave Maria, a private Roman Catholic university offering 33 undergraduate and three graduate degrees.
In 2022, with $2.5 million from Brian and Kim Rist and the Rist Family Foundation, Florida SouthWestern’s State College’s School of Business and Technology established the Rist Cyber Institute to expand the college’s existing cybersecurity programs.