When did Cape Coral become cool?
It seems like only yesterday this sprawling residential community was best known as the forlorn face of the nation's foreclosure crisis. In the late 2000s, this boom- and-bust city offered a cautionary tale against real estate gluttony. Fun was definitely not the first thing that came to mind about Cape Coral, the third-largest city in size in Florida.
But in recent years, there's been a crescendo of energy in the burgeoning downtown. Nightlife spots and acclaimed restaurants in the South Cape along and nearby Cape Coral Parkway have incited a trend; people who don't live in the Cape have found reason to trek across the Cape Coral Bridge. "It’s attracting people from Fort Myers, Immokalee and Sarasota who are going, 'Holy cow, I can't believe I'm in Cape Coral,'" says Christopher Spiro, whose family arrived in the Cape in 1970, the same year the city was incorporated. Spiro is CEO and chief creative director of Spiro & Associates, a marketing, advertising and public relations firm.
Hip restaurants such as Nevermind Awesome Bar & Eatery and Nice Guys Pizza, which have been credited with revolutionizing the Cape's dining scene, moved in nearby longstanding venues. On a recent Friday evening, parking near SE 10th Place and SE 47th Terrace, which runs just north of the Cape Coral Parkway and backs up to popular spots like the nightclub Dixie Roadhouse and Big Blue Brewing, was so packed that cars squeezed onto grassy medians. "Everybody talked about how Cape Coral was the home of the dead, but there's been a conversion," says Shannon Yates, a chef and Cape Coral native who opened Nevermind in 2012.
Since that time, Yates has expanded Nevermind by creating an adjacent Irish bar. He’s also a partner in two other dining ventures within walking distance: Mix Rocktails & Tapas Bar, which opened this year, and Danger, Danger, set to open this summer.
The emerging downtown has injected local flavor into the Cape, where it can be lacking amid lines of similar-looking middle-class homes.
"We're getting a lot of organic growth of independently owned restaurants and bars, which is extremely important because that's what creates the character," says Dana Brunett, Cape Coral's economic development manager. "People don't come in from out of town to go to Golden Corral. People come up from Naples to go to Nevermind."
In the first three months of 2017, about 40 businesses opened within the South Cape redevelopment district, according to Terri Hall, community redevelopment area coordinator. The number of businesses in the district has grown from about 800 in 2013 to about 900 in 2017, city records show. (The total redevelopment area spans nearly 2,000 acres, including the South Cape downtown along Cape Coral Parkway after coming off the Cape Coral Bridge and residential areas, according to a city plan.) Brunett credits the downtown surge to a population boost and youth.
Cape Coral grew from 154,300 residents in 2010 to 175,230 in 2015. The median age in the Cape is 44 years old. Also, transportation networks like Uber gave non-Cape residents a way to imbibe more safely by not driving after a night out.
As it exists, the South Cape downtown core offers a quirky blend of businesses. A Kombucha truck was parked within steps of a title company on a recent weekend night. The World Famous Cigar Bar sits next door to a tropical furniture gallery. Nice Guys Pizza, home to local craft beers and a pinball league, shares a building with a decorative brick paving and sealing company. It feels like a new Cape. It feels like an old Cape. It lacks unifying charm. Cape Coral is out to change that.
Brittany Carters serves specialty cocktails and a smile.
In years past, the city and the community redevelopment agency have focused on smaller projects in the South Cape like a parking lot and street, median and lighting improvements because the agency did not have much revenue to work with, Hall says. But there's a project for SE 47th Terrace in the works that the agency hopes will better define the South Cape downtown as a destination.
Estimated to cost about $8.5 million, the project will improve a mile-long stretch of SE 47th Terrace, a street to which many establishments are hewed, running from Del Prado Boulevard to Coronado Parkway. It is slated to include an upgrading of underground utilities, sidewalks, pavers, traffic-calming features and landscaping, Hall says. The target for completion is the end of 2018. "The hope is when you do stuff like that, existing building owners may invest in their own buildings," Brunett says. "Potential business people, they like it, because the city is investing. Nobody wants to be a pioneer."
South Cape Hospitality & Entertainment Associations, or SCHEA, which was formed in 2013 to foster partnerships among the businesses in the South Cape redevelopment district, offered input on design elements. "It is a feel kind of like Fifth Avenue in Naples," says Donna Meola, SCHEA's executive director. "The whole idea is to make it a walking entertainment district."
SCHEA hired Meola last year when the demands of organizing its various trolley events and festivals, like Bacon Fest, to lure people to the South Cape got to be too much for the core businesses. "I've lived here 40 years and to see this type of teamwork is just so overwhelmingly beautiful," she says. Meola has heard from business owners in the Southwest Cape wanting to know how to replicate their trolley events. She sees signs of a transforming neighborhood: an office building being converted to condos targeting millennials and an upscale sushi bar opening. "It's watching businesses come in that probably wouldn't have come to Cape Coral before."
One anticipated new addition is Big Blue Brewing, the 10,000-square-foot brewery and gastro pub that opened in October that sits in the heart of the South Cape entertainment district near SE 47th Terrace and SE 10th Place. JoAnn Elardo and her family, of Wicked Dolphin Distillery fame, are behind Big Blue Brewing. They bought an old bingo hall in 2015 after hearing a funeral home was considering it. The city initially asked if they'd be interested in relocating Wicked Dolphin to that area, but there wasn't enough space. The brewery and restaurant became the alternative. "I always liked that building because I thought it was in a really great area," JoAnn Elardo says. "And we've been looking for something to move the needle a bit in South Cape."
Vitality in the South Cape could spark additional commercial investment in Cape Coral. "It becomes a magnet. You're bringing people in and they're going to look for other things to do," Brunett notes. He pointed to the busy April opening of the Tropical Breeze Fun Park on Santa Barbara Boulevard that claims the longest mini golf hole in the world. And, within the South Cape district, the closed Cape Elks Lodge is being acquired to offer live entertainment and a restaurant, Brunett says.
Demand is there; the problem is the space. The South Cape business section was planned in a time of "big box" centers. Development there, as in other parts of the Cape, has been hindered by the challenge of assembling large land parcels, poor layout and inadequate parking, according to the city's 2014 South Cape redevelopment plan. The city began as a residential sub-division in the late 1950s and lacks tracts of commercial land. (For perspective, Brunett says an average city has at least a 40 percent commercial tax base, while the Cape's commercial base is about 12 percent, which has increased from 8 percent in the past two years.)
That's why part of its economic development is redevelopment.
"In the short term, you really have a lot of restaurant-related uses who want to get into the South Cape," Brunett says. "We have some space but it's not restaurant space. That's the grunt work that you don't hear about, but it's a big part of it."
Meola, who represents South Cape businesses, thinks a boost could come from establishing a 4 a.m. closing time for the bars. Three bars participated in the city's trial program to push back closing time from 2 a.m. on weekends. The existing city council, despite supporting South Cape redevelopment, scuttled the idea of making the extended hours permanent in 2016. A new council could revisit the issue, Meola notes. City elections take place in November. Still, regardless of what happens politically, the South Cape is making people see the Cape differently, and she couldn't be happier about that. "We can't be that sleepy little bedroom community we've always been," she says. "It's time to put Cape Coral on the map, and I think we're doing it."