The road(s) to ruin, continued…

Rural sprawl, the “Airglades International Airport,” and possibly two toll roads running through Southwest Florida’s dwindling open lands? A lot to unpack from this “Naples Daily News” update and interview.

Published in the Naples Daily News on August 3, 2020

In the Know:

The intersection with the pandemic, a $1 billion loss in one month and two possible local toll expressways

Phil Fernandez / Naples Daily News / Aug. 3, 2020

COVID-19 has brought all types of misery to our nation and state, with now more than 150,000 family members, friends and neighbors losing their lives.

That’s more than the combined populations of the cities of Fort Myers and Sarasota, and there’s no sign of slowing down.  This past week, Florida hit a string of consecutive days with record-number coronavirus deaths.

With that, there’s also the crushing economics of it all, like the numbers that pop out in July’s indicators report by Florida Gulf Coast University’s Regional Economic Research Institute.

In a matter of a month, Southwest Florida lost close to $1 billion in sales. Seasonally-adjusted taxable sales fell from $2.4 billion in April 2019 to $1.5 billion in April 2020, RERI reported in its July report for Collier, Lee, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties.

But there’s one county that actually gained during that time, and with other data, seems to help support a trend you read here first last month: Folks are moving to the community’s rural areas from the tighter spaces of urban centers up north, South Florida and our region.

Two months in a row, Hendry is the only regional county to show an increase in taxable sales, 2% over April 2019 and 13% over May 2019, based on new RERI statistics late Friday. Glades was just off 4% in April, compared to Collier’s 41% freefall and Lee’s 36% plunge in that month.

Hendry, which has been experiencing growth near the State Road 29 and U.S. 27 pathways, is also ahead of last year’s pace on single-family permits, according to RERI.

Meanwhile, record building numbers are propelling Babcock Ranch at the Lee-Charlotte line and eastern Collier’s Ave Maria near State Road 29, where CC Homes is developing the Maple Ridge neighborhood.

“CC Homes is experiencing many of the trends you spoke about in your column, including increased sales activity and interest from northeast buyers and even Broward County,” spokeswoman Cindi Perantoni told me. Buyers are seeking “a return to suburban living in a quest for single family homes, more outdoor space and bigger lots as a result of the changing lifestyles and work patterns caused by the pandemic. Additionally, as more and more Floridians work from home or go into the office fewer times a week, commuting is no longer a concern, and quality of life is paramount.”

New residents moving to expected toll road path

The timing of this shift is interesting considering that as we speak, the governor and the Legislature are trying to move rapidly on plopping a mega toll system near these very same sprouting patches, saying it would help fuel the economy.

With construction due to start in two years, the freeway track from here to I-4 is becoming clearer as the Southwest-Central Florida Connector Task Force works on its report.

“It’s going to have to be on top of this State Road 29 or else you’d be violating essentially the criteria we set out. That idea of using existing infrastructure really has seemed to be embraced,” said task force member and former state legislator Matt Caldwell. “U.S. 17, U.S. 27, State Road 29, State Road 31 — these all are highlighted already as an opportunity for the task force to see what existing facilities look like and how they lay into that map with some of the decisions we’ve already made.”

What is the crit?

“We identified kind of a four-step criteria or a four-part criteria for developing this report. And it is Avoid, Minimize, Mitigate, Enhance,” Caldwell said. “What do we want to avoid completely? Then what do we want to minimize an impact on? Then what are the things that we’re willing to impact but want to make sure that we mitigate? And then what are the ways we can enhance?”

A biggie in all this includes making sure current burghs benefit, among the reasons the focus is on present-day highways, said Caldwell, who gave a Real Estate Investment Society presentation last month.

“If the goal is really to enhance those communities, to enhance workplace opportunities, then focusing traffic, focusing commercial development where you’ve already got an existing town, where you’ve got infrastructure, water, sewer, etc. and making those interchanges really be part of those towns, driving traffic to them is something that I think should be prioritized, and a point that’s been repeatedly taken up,” Caldwell said. “It gives pretty clear, I think, what the opportunities are, what the limitations are, and really narrows down what we’re ultimately going to be looking at here.”

As covered by our newspapers, the environment has been central to many of those speaking against the project at task force confabs. And the wildlife is a potent driver toward not creating new expressway corridors, and why there’s clarity on the path.

“There are only two spots left where large wildlife can actually move north to south on the Peninsula and so you’ve got obviously your general concerns about the quality of long-time wildlife care. How are you going to grow a population, a healthy population, if they can’t connect with each other?  But also, the practical considerations: When you talk about large fauna, bears, panthers, alligators, if they don’t have an effective way to get across our major roads, (it’s) a danger to the drivers,” Caldwell said.

An expanding airport and two possible toll roads

Hendry’s Airglades International Airport, where expansion began in March, presents another weighty factor in the route’s determination.

“It’s moving forward,” Caldwell said. “You’re going to have a new facility that’s going to take all of that significant freight traffic out of Miami International Airport, at least that’s the goal, and bring it here to just outside Clewiston. If I’m thinking about facilitating getting that freight then north up the Peninsula, I think that’s going to be a big influence.”

And with that influence comes a Caldwell curve ball for our area.

“There’s nothing in the legislation that dictates that it’s only one road. I could easily see in the broad sense, a pronged connection, so that you’ve got really two access points from Southwest Florida leading to a central point at some point somewhere along the line as it heads back to the Lakeland area,” Caldwell said.

On the north side of the thoroughfare, Caldwell expects a tie into the parkway that at the moment goes around downtown Lakeland and into I-4.

“They’re already in the design phase of the project that goes from Polk Parkway down to the Bartow Airport. And then they’re in the (study) phase of taking it down to State Road 60,” Caldwell said. “The connection somewhere near the Bartow Airport seems very likely. I think it’s a pretty logical conclusion.”

So besides having a major throughway pass nearby, how could these towns and their residents get a boost?

“If there’s a grand bargain of sorts, where the task force report says, yes, these rural communities want this road. They want it to come to their towns, but in exchange, they really need X-Y-Z in terms of educational facilities, technological training, upgrades to their utility infrastructure,” Caldwell said. “How do you take what is currently a wide open road and make it limited access? Looking at programs that already exist that can be funded and utilized to achieve that, whether that’s some kind of conservation easement program where the existing highway goes through rural farmland and simply buying the right to no longer have a driveway connection directly onto that highway.”

Unlike other major roadways, the idea to spend what will easily exceed $1 billion for this and two other toll arteries planned for Florida came from lawmakers. Typically, it’s Department of Transportation engineers and planners. And there’s more to what Gov. Ron DeSantis and his team have dubbed Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance, or M-CORES.

“The report isn’t going to have a final route,” Caldwell said. “You’re not going to see the exact roadway ready for the PD&E (project development and environment study to begin) the design and engineering phase that many of us are familiar with.”

Based at the Naples Daily News, Columnist Phil Fernandez ( writes In the Know as part of the USA TODAY NETWORK. Support Democracy and subscribe to a newspaper. Thank you so much for all the wonderful inquiries and your very nice comments. I receive so many that it’s tough to keep up, but I’ll continue to do my best to find answers.

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