Editor's note: The following was presented by Ruth Ann Anglickis to the Greater Lehigh Acres Chamber of Commerce at its monthly luncheon on March 27.
Lehigh Acres started in 1950 as many of you know. Lee County Land and Title Company was formed to sell land to people up north with the hopes of getting them to retire here in years to come. I'm not sure if they ever thought someone would actually live here. Lots were sold for $50 down and $10 a month. Our medium age back then was over 68.
My parents actually bought a lot on Arthur Avenue in 1958 and my Dad came to the 10 room motel to see the area where they had made an investment. They moved here in the spring of 1962 and I followed that fall, while my husband was still in college. There were 1,200 people living here then and I thought I had fallen off the face of the earth having come from Chicago. There was only one road out of Lehigh - Anderson Avenue (now Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd.) and then State Road 80. Downtown Ft. Myers consisted of a small group of old hotels and stores, including a Sears Roebuck catalog store. McGregor Boulevard was a narrow almost dirt road that led to a ferry boat you had to take if you wanted to visit Mosquito Island (Sanibel). You could buy land on the Gulf for $1,000 an acre. There was an outdoor movie theater by the Edison Mall and not much else on US 41.
I got a job, at age 19, working for Harry Powell at the Charmed Circle, as his administrative aide. One Christmas Eve I actually typed 125 new home sales contracts. The corporation went from $1 million a year in lot sales to $30 million my first year. We brought prospects to Lehigh in planes and buses from the East Coast, advertized in northern papers and had satellite offices in Europe, Military bases, offices in Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Las Vegas, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Illinois and more. We even had a traveling house. It was an amazing time for growth. We worked 7 days a week from 9 to 9. We started planning our city of tomorrow with the development and platting of roads (yes, there actually is a grid), parks, shopping areas, churches and everything a "city in the making" needed. We offered retirement seminars, built the first of many schools to come, offered free land to churches and organized over 125 clubs and corporations, including the Chamber, Council, Community Health Care, the Spring Festival and Community Services, all in an effort to create a vision of a community whose motto was, "Lehigh Acres - The land of opportunity - Where a handshake means a lasting friendship." We built a cemetery, bowling alley, utility plant, shopping centers, hospital (recruited doctors at a Miami convention to come to Lehigh), restaurants, parks, recreation, nursing home and more. We put Lehigh Acres on the map and networked with surrounding areas, other Chambers, helped to form the Horizon Council, helped to form the States' Committee of 100, and hosted every politician in the State including the Governor and cabinet; many of whom appeared on Breakfast at the Matador Room. Our local Jaycees hosted Ronald Reagan in Orlando. At the time, Lehigh Corporation employed over 1,200 people who worked for 20 different corporations providing services to residents.
My boss and I left Lehigh Corporation in 1981, where he had been President for over a decade, and formed Landex Corporation. We manage homeowner, property owner, condominium and timeshare properties. Lehigh Corporation changed a lot after 1981 (over 30 years ago) and it was the end of their making a profit. The land plan parcels and plats that had not been dedicated were sold to investment groups, erasing a lot of the pre-planning that was done for the community, as many of these parcels had been dedicated for future shopping centers, schools, parks and gated communities. Before the new owners of Lehigh Corporation finally left Lehigh, the end of promoting Lehigh Acres also ended. That was more than 15 years ago.
Since then we have become the largest unincorporated area in Lee County, maybe even the State. I hear numbers stating 87,500 people are living here; many of whom sleep here, but drive elsewhere to their job, entertainment and shopping. We do not have our fair share of development and growth, and we sometimes think we never will get it, so why even try. However, we are 1/3 the land mass of Lee County (the size of Tampa) and we are over 15% of Lee County's population. We provide a lot of tax dollars to Lee County that we do not see returned to our community for improvements. Many of our tax dollars go to incorporated cities in Lee County and a lot of our school taxes are never returned as they go to other areas of the State for schools in counties who do not raise enough tax dollars.
Along the way, Lehigh Acres has had to strongly make requests to the County for improvements; more schools (two new ones being built now), more parks, road improvements, and we had to fight Dump the Dump, not allow strip clubs on 82 entering Lehigh Acres, and we lost a huge parcel of land that Ft. Myers annexed which does not give us tax dollars. Lehigh Acres doesn't really start until Leonard Boulevard. But we also promoted and raised money to bring a Hope Hospice to Lehigh Acres, Arts for the Inland, improvements to Veteran's Park, roads, bike paths, Heron Pond, Lehigh Regional Hospital and much more by working with others in a positive manner. It was part of influencing others to agree instead of disagree.
Well, we know where we've been, but do we know where we're going from here? And, more important - how do we get there?
On April 14, 2012 please come to Veteran's Park Recreational Center building and get involved in the Lehigh Acres Redevelopment Plan to see where we could be going if everyone gets on the train to become "One Voice" and continue "Community Action Forum's". It starts at 9:30AM. The County has spent more than a half million dollars helping to develop a plan that will jumpstart future development in our area. It's an ambitious improvement project that can make a huge impact on the future of our city in the making. The Greater Lehigh Acres Chamber of Commerce, The Lehigh Acres Community Council and the Lehigh Acres Economic Development Board have agreed to band together to help promote this plan in order to attract development dollars that will bring more businesses to Lehigh Acres. If you develop and improve the infrastructure and services, more people will move here. If more people move here, more businesses will come. If more business come, more jobs are created. It's sort of a symbiosis or circle of life. It will need the strength of everyone (businesses and residents) working together to create circles of influence.
For many business owners, the work day isn't over when they leave their office. Leaders of our business community are also serving on local, regional and state organizations, as well as civic clubs. They are devoting time to cultivating the progress and growth of our community. Many are overwhelmed as they've been serving and performing stewardship in Lehigh Acres, some for 50 years, like my husband and me. Economic development helps all businesses, old and new, and we must find ways to motivate new leaders. My boss always told me, "You can only be successful when you motivate others to do the job for you." Old and new leadership is needed to create a better business climate. We can no longer afford to not work with one another, side by side. Old grudges, old gossip, old thinking must change in order to lead our community into the future. It's not about one person or one group. It's about One Voice
"Working together by doing well, by doing good." It's smart for all businesses and residents to be involved in the growth of our economy and our community.
Leaders of our community have and are continuing to meet with the Board of County Commissioners, asking more leaders to get involved as members of all committees established by the County. The Council, Chamber and EDB are working on this now. Help is needed to establish a Community Redevelopment Agency and gain services from Lee County for Municipal Services Benefits, Community Development Block Grants, County Staff Support, Range Transportation Plan, Priority Placement of Lehigh projects on the Lee County Capital Improvements Element and Capital Improvements Program, etc.
Leadership in our community can and will come from various circles of influenceClubs, Organizations, Churches, Medical Community, Social Services, FEVRR (voter registration), LAEDB, GLAC of C, LACC, Government (Local, State, Federal), Schools and School Board, Infrastructure (ECWCD, FGUA, LCEC, fire district, sheriff, MPO/CAC, DOT, SFWMD), Street lighting District, code enforcement, community development, zoning, parks and recreation, Community Redevelopment Agency, Keep LA Beautiful, Weed and Seed, Veteran's Associations, Youth Associations, other Civic Associations and more.
There is a lot at stake if the leadership in our community stays fragmented, apathetic, or individualized. There is a lot at stake if we don't become One Voice and become educated in the process of how we can help make this plan a reality. Mahatma Gandhi once said, "YOU MUST BE THE CHANGE YOU WISH TO SEE IN THE WORLD." That's called "We the people.."
We must be about Selling Lehigh Acres. Our medium age today is under 45. We can't just sit in our offices waiting for change to come to us. We must find ways to work with County Planners, Politicians, County Committees, Horizon Council, other Chambers, Lee County Economic Development which is marketed as the Fort Myers Regional Planning Council that does not incorporate unincorporated areas and we get no commercial referrals; and we must find ways to motivate more leadership to help us get to where Lehigh Acres becomes more than an "affordable community." The County has given us a new vision. We thank our County Commissioners for this bold move. They want to see us succeed. Together we must create a new mission by forging our resources to create One Voice representing Enterprise Lehigh Acres.
We have been told that we are the North/South - East/West corridor for growth in the State of Florida. We have been told that 62% of construction jobs were lost over the past 5 years and we know all about the foreclosures that resulted from loss of jobs and an overpriced market. But we have new companies coming to Lee County such as Gartner, a global IT Company adding 400 new jobs. Newcomer VR Lab is adding 200 jobs. Chico's is adding another 150 jobs. Southwest Florida Global Research Institute is bringing a tissue bank to Lee County that eventually will be the centerpiece of a high-tech health research center linked with area hospitals, FGCU and the Walter Reed Army Hospital. They will be located on Treeline Boulevard near the Regional Airport. Our Lehigh Acres industrial park is almost fully developed and we need to work on a new area to attract light industry in order to promote more jobs in Lehigh Acres. We use the economic downturn as an excuse as to why we must accept whatever we don't like about our community. But we have also been told to claim the Red Sox Stadium, FGCU, Edison State College and other assets of Lee County that are nearby. We have been given a positive development potential in the Lehigh Acres Redevelopment Plan, which will create the widening of Homestead Road with a beautifully landscaped median, as well as a turnaround at confusion corner with a clock tower. This alone will make an immediate impact on the look of our area. Leaders are meeting with the Commissioners during their 2013 budget hearings to get this in next years' budget and several other items for the betterment of our community. There is a lot happening, a lot going on, and a lot to do. We must communicate the needs to one another, to our members and the residents of Lehigh. We deserve to have whatever we want. We have the population. We have the land. We can and are assimilating the land areas destined for renewal. There is a need for Senior Housing, Assisted Living, and branded businesses. There is a need to someday incorporate and to encourage positive thinking as to how we can accomplish the City of Lehigh Acres. Now is not the time to lay back. Now is the time to forge ahead and let nothing or no one stand in the path of growth. It is our future, our children's future and our grand-children's future.
We can sit back and continue our status-quo, or we can find ways to rededicate ourselves to create a new vision and a new mission, in order to make what we want to change by working together! My kids use to tell me they liked the words "pretty soon" better than "in a little while." Pretty soon is at our doorstep. Remember the Bible says, "Ask and ye shall receive. Knock and the door shall be opened unto you." Now is the time to thank our County Commissioners for the plan and to continue asking them to help us make it a reality.
Gary and Members, thank you for inviting me to speak. I know you are the heart of Greater Lehigh Acres and are excited to be on the ground floor of a new enterprise. Our One Voice will make a difference by speaking out and motivating others to get on board the train now. It has a destination. It has tracks. Now is the time to say, "I want to help make it happen. I want to help make a difference." Now is not the time to say, it can't be done.
Ruth Ann Anglickis represents a group calling itself One Voice.