The year 2020 represented the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic, while 2021 demonstrated the awe of the business and real estate community persevering through it and even progressing beyond it.
Southwest Florida experienced steady growth across all business sectors this year. Residential real estate continued to soar as the combined populations of Lee and Collier counties eclipsed one million residents, according to 2020 U.S. Census data. Industrial and retail construction and land deals also soared. Industrial boomed with large, last-mile delivery warehouses. Retail continued its migration to smaller, neighborhood, mini-strip malls.
Inventory across all real estate sectors kept getting absorbed, said Gary Tasman, CEO of Cushman & Wakefield. “This year is very different,” Tasman says of 2021. “This year, we have absorbed essentially all of the inventory in office, industrial, commercial, retail and certainly multifamily and hospitality. There are more and more users coming into the market. And the inventories are being depleted. What happens now?
“This was the year that Southwest Florida took a leap forward in terms of commercial real estate business activity. Without supply, there won’t be demand. So, we’re just going to see some breaks (in development). We’ll have to understand each category. Then we can replenish our inventory.”
The Southwest Florida economy appears to be quite healthy, nearly two years after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, said Amir Neto, director of the Regional Economic Research Institute and an assistant professor of economics at Florida Gulf Coast University. “We’re still doing well,” Neto says. “We’re doing better than expectations.” Just look at the progress made from the summer of 2019 to the summer of 2021: Air traffic into Southwest Florida International Airport climbed 51%, taxable sales rose 36%, single-family home permits increased by 64%, single-family home sales rose by 28% and prices of those homes rose between 38% and 56% during the same span.
Tourism in Collier and Lee counties is on pace for a record-setting year. The highest tourism tax collection in a single month in Collier’s history was recorded in April. That kicked off the county’s highest second quarter in history for tourism tax collection from April to July, which experienced a 24% increase over the previous record set in 2019.
Major regional hotel and resort projects began to take shape. Allegiant Air restarted construction of Sunseeker Resort in Port Charlotte following a pandemic-induced delay. Margaritaville Beach Resort broke ground and began construction on Fort Myers Beach following delays caused by both legal issues and the pandemic. After 75 seasons, the iconic Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club closed this spring for future redevelopment into a Four Seasons resort on the Gulf.
In August, FGCU opened Lucas Hall, a 27,000-square-foot, three-story home for the Daveler & Kauanui School of Entrepreneurship, the FineMark National Bank & Trust Incubator, the Rist Family Foundation Maker Space, the Florida Small Business Development Center and FGCU’s Regional Economic Research Institute. Major regional developments greenlighted this year in Collier County include the Great Wolf Lodge resort and water park, Uline Corp.’s massive distribution center and Stock Development’s controversial One Naples multi-use redevelopment project.
Everything wasn’t always full of sunshine this year. After years of anticipation, Buc-ee’s canceled its plans for a 120-pump gas station and huge convenience store for a 158-acre site in Fort Myers. Regardless, 2021 still will be remembered as a successful comeback year for Southwest Florida. Many folks agree that this is the place to be.
Ave Maria in Collier, the Corkscrew Road corridor east of Interstate 75 in Lee and Babcock Ranch in Charlotte were the three highest-growth areas for new, single-family homes in 2021. Ave Maria and Babcock Ranch are among the top-selling master-planned communities in the nation.
Over a 12-month period ending July 2021, there were 712 new units permitted in Ave Maria, the most in the region. The 4,000-acre community, surrounding the Catholic university of the same name established by Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan, continues to be the fastest-growing in Southwest Florida.
Babcock Ranch eclipsed 2,500 residents and is projected to finish 2021 with 3,500 residents, said Syd Kitson, the town’s founder and CEO of Kitson & Partners. There were 691 new units permitted in a 12-month period ending July 2021.
“First of all, knowing that we’re dealing with this global pandemic, there are so many tragedies all around us,” Kitson says. “So many issues. At the same time, Babcock is having another record year. It confirms we continue to have high expectations.”
Construction started on the Babcock Ranch Neighborhood High School, expected to be ready for fall 2022 classes, Kitson said. “It’s just scratching the surface,” he says. “There’s so much going on here. We’re going to have a mile-long linear park. We’re building a village green. It’s going to have places for pop-up food, a beer garden, an amphitheater.”
Cameratta Companies keeps filling in its communities east of Estero and I-75 and off Corkscrew Road. Corkscrew Shores, with 647 single-family homes on a 250-acre lake, sold out. The Preserve at Corkscrew has 421 homes. The Place at Corkscrew will have 1,325 single-family homes and is nearing completion.
“We should be complete there over the next 12 months,” Nick Cameratta, COO of Cameratta Properties, says. “We’ve got close to 1,100 homes closed and another 100, plus or minus, under construction.”
Verdana Village, the ongoing next big project for Cameratta, has a planned buildout of up to 2,400 homes. The Cameratta Companies has plenty of competition. Nearby Wild Blue will have room for 1,096 homes. Corkscrew Estates, the newest community along the corridor, will have 59 homes, all about an acre apiece.
Single-family home permits rose by 61% in Lee, 37% in Collier and 32% in Charlotte year over year, according to Randy Thibaut, CEO of LSI Companies. Demand for homes in Collier County kept Realtors busy this year even as inventory dropped more than 75%, according to market reports by the Naples Board of Realtors (NABOR). Most homes were listed, shown and sold in less than 30 days, even during the historically slower summer months. “Pent-up buyer demand that began last summer has stretched inventory thin. This could lead to upward pressure on pricing,” says Mike Hughes, vice president and general manager for Downing-Frye Realty Inc. NABOR reports that the median closed price of $455,000 reported in August was $60,000 higher than the median closed price in January.
Apartment homes remain a hot commodity in Southwest Florida. More than 1,000 units are under development just in Cape Coral. High demand for more apartments exists because the city reports that the existing apartment occupancy is at least 90%. Hundreds of luxury apartments are under construction at Founders Square and Allura in North Naples, Courthouse Shadows in East Naples, Odyssey by Soltura in Fort Myers and elsewhere.
The strong sellers’ market for residential units proved to be lucrative on the commercial end too, resulting in some major real estate deals. The historic Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club sold for more than $362 million. Many other local properties changed hands in million-dollar deals.
Naples-based Hoffmann Family of Companies acquired Old Collier Golf Club in North Naples and Old Corkscrew Golf Club in Estero. MSD Partners, a Michael S. Dell firm, bought Hamilton Harbor Yacht Club in Naples and was behind the sale of Naples Beach Club. Neptune Resort on Fort Myers Beach and the Bay House Restaurant in North Naples also sold for big bucks. So did the Oasis Grand Tower II condominiums and Campo Felice apartment complex in Fort Myers, the Gordon River Apartments in Naples and Tropicana mobile home park in south Lee.
Every category of real estate continues to thrive in Southwest Florida, and the growth keeps pushing farther inland. The hotbed of construction of corporate headquarters, medical offices and industrial warehouses being built off Alico Road and I-75 is generating more construction of service-related businesses.
Corporate headquarters here made news all year, mostly because of new construction of home offices. Seagate Development Group was behind the building of new multistory headquarters for NeoGenomics and Scotlynn as well as a 35,000-square-foot facility for Rice Insulation & Glass. Seagate also is building the 40-acre Alico Trade Center and the White Cap Construction Supply facility in Fort Myers. Matilda Jane Clothing, a girls’ and women’s apparel brand, relocated its corporate headquarters from Indiana to Fort Myers this fall.
Hertz, already based in Estero, had some major rebuilding of its own following its bankruptcy reorganization this summer. The car rental giant accelerated forward with a new interim CEO, stock market plans and a worldwide initiative to lease electric vehicles.
Medical and health-related business continued to control a large chunk of commercial real estate activity in 2021. Lee Health bought 23 acres along Pine Island Road for future expansion in Cape Coral. Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital started construction on new in-patient hospitals in Cape Coral and North Naples. Physicians Regional Healthcare System Medical built two large medical office buildings in the Naples area and took over Landmark Hospital in North Naples. NCH sold its central campus in Naples and relocated offices to the former Naples Daily News building it purchased at the end of last year.
The area was abuzz with some grand openings this year that had been anticipated. Topgolf finally debuted its anticipated sports and entertainment venue in Fort Myers in November. CMX CineBistro brought its restaurant-with-a-movie concept to Naples this fall. Amazon Last-Mile Delivery filled the long-vacated steel skeleton this summer in East Naples. Amazon’s first sorting center in Southwest Florida became operational in mid-November off Alico Road just west of Interstate 75.
Publix Super Markets launched new stores in Babcock Ranch, Fort Myers, East Naples and Marco Island. Others are already under way. Aldi opened new grocery stores in Bonita Springs, Fort Myers and North Naples. Farmer Joe’s Fresh Market was set to open its first store in Cape Coral near the end of the year.
Filling some big-box spaces, Burlington, HomeGoods and Planet Fitness opened in East Naples, Floor & Decor debuted in North Naples, and Big Lots and Goodwill launched in Bonita.
Issues directly or indirectly stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic continued to affect the region throughout 2021. The most widespread and noticeable effects involved across-the-board staffing shortages and supply chain issues. Every consumer and business felt the impacts one way or another and experienced rising food and gas prices.
Elective procedures suspended at area hospitals because of COVID-19 resumed this year in most cases, allowing ailing hospitals to recover. The pandemic further affected NCH Healthcare System, though, when scores of employees who chose not to be vaccinated “voluntarily resigned” this fall, NCH reported.
Southwest Florida International Airport found a silver lining during pandemic times. RSW has set monthly records for the number of passengers and remains No. 1 in the nation for airport recovery since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, according to data shared by the Lee County Port Authority. The regional airport began a major terminal expansion project this fall.
Southwest Florida tourism is booming despite the pandemic. Lee and Collier counties continue to have a record-breaking year for tourism. “In fact, every month this year has been better than it was even in 2019,” says Lee County Commissioner Brian Hamman, chair of the Tourist Development Council.
The region lost some notable business people this year who were at the top of their professions for real estate, car dealerships, local restaurants and other callings.
Local automobile icons Billy Fuccillo and Sam Galloway made noticeable marks on the region. Not only did their longevity and commercial success make them household names, but they quietly gave back to the local community.
Sam Galloway Jr. died March 3 at age 76. The leader of Galloway Ford took the Fort Myers car dealership to new heights, guiding it into the digital age. But he will remain revered across the region not for selling cars but for feeding the hungry.
“When I first met him, gosh, we were doing fundraising for another organization,” says Stephanie Ink Edwards, CEO of Community Cooperative, which was founded by Galloway Jr. and feeds the hungry in Lee County. “Way before Community Cooperative, I’ll never forget sitting in a meeting with him and just hearing his perspective on philanthropy in Southwest Florida. He took a really strong stance. He wanted to give back and support his community here. He wanted the dollars to stay here. That moment always stuck with me.”
Billy Fuccillo brought a flair for marketing with his “Huge!” TV commercials. He blanketed the airwaves with them from the minute his Kia dealership opened December 2011 off Pine Island Road in Cape Coral until an illness forced him off the airwaves in late 2019. Fuccillo, 65, died June 18.
Founders of two of Naples’ top real estate firms passed away this year at about the same age. Earl Frye, co-founder of Downing-Frye & Associates, died July 10 at age 92. John R. Wood, founder of John R. Wood Properties, died Aug. 4, just six weeks shy of his 92nd birthday. Wood still served as chairman of the board of the oldest major real estate brokerage in Southwest Florida. Frye, a former president of the Naples Area Board of Realtors, was inducted into the NABOR hall of fame.
A couple of memorable restaurateurs died young this year. Adam Smith, born in the United Kingdom, made a local name for himself with Naples Redevelopment and the creation of two Naples restaurants, The Bevy and Lake Park Diner. Smith died of cancer July 2 at age 52.
Shannon Yates, who built a number of restaurants from scratch, most recently with Nevermind Awesome Bar & Eatery in Cape Coral, died Aug. 16 after contracting COVID-19. The 1989 Cape Coral High graduate was 49.