LCEC marks milestone: An electrifying 80 years
One of Lee County’s best-known businesses grew up in North Fort Myers — literally.
In 1937, orange grove owner George Judd ran a small power plant for his farm in North Fort Myers. He started an investor-owned utility with 50 shares of stock valued at $100 each.
In 1940, Judd sold the North Fort Myers Mariana Grove power plant to the members who lived in North Fort Myers.
The Lee County Electric Cooperative was then formed to bring electricity to parts of Southwest Florida — including Lehigh Acres — that no other utility wanted to serve.
Homer T. Welch was the company’s first member of management when LCEC began with 15 miles of distribution line and 158 members, which, at the time, was about 1 percent of Lee County’s population.
After negotiating a loan for $150,000 from the Rural Electrification Administration, Welch went door to door in North Fort Myers and Sanibel in the hopes of getting enough members to form a cooperative.
But, LCEC was more than an electric distribution cooperative.
Welch often paid the $5 membership fee to join out of his own pocket because residents did not have the money.
Today, during its 80th year, the North Fort Myers head-quartered co-op still remains that people-first company.
“We realize it’s a privilege to serve them,” said LCEC?spokesperson Karen Ryan. “We take that very seriously, so we are going to do whatever it takes to give reliable service.”
“We are not in business to make money,” Ryan said. “We are only in business to serve our members. There are not a lot of businesses that can say that.”
Within its first year of operation, LCEC offered service to Pine Island, Sanibel and Captiva Islands. World War II prevented further expansion, but following the war, LCEC purchased the surplus transmission line that ran from the Buckingham Air Force Base. By 1951, service had been extended as far south as Chokoloskee Island.
In 1953, LCEC acquired the Everglades City Power Plant from Collier County, and then retired the plant when a new distribution line was built to serve the city. A new line was also extended from Carnestown to serve Marco Island. And in 1955, members from Lehigh Acres began purchasing power from the cooperative.
Today, LCEC serves customers in Cape Coral, North Fort Myers, Sanibel, Captiva, Pine Island, Everglades City, Immokalee, Marco Island, Ave Maria and parts of Lehigh Acres.
No new service territory was added from the late 1950s until 1986, when LCEC extended power to a rural section of Golden Gate Estates in Naples, and in 1987, when lines were constructed along a section of Alligator Alley.
Perhaps LCEC’s most notable claim to fame lies with the city of Cape Coral
The development of Cape Coral, in fact, begins with LCEC which, with only a handshake, agreed to provide the then-fledgling community’s electrical grid.
In 1957, Welch, Lee County Electric Cooperative manager, and Cape Coral developer Leonard Rosen made a promise.
They shook hands when there was nothing yet built in Cape Coral.
Welch agreed to return Rosen’s $3,000 deposit and that handshake symbolized a promise to run electricity eight miles down what is now Del Prado Boulevard after Rosen had built 24 homes and hooked them up to the LCEC electric system.
In 1958, power was connected to the first six model homes in the city.
“In 1957, people didn’t realize what Cape Coral would become so no other utility company wanted to serve the area because it was really just canals and open fields and farmlands,” Ryan said. “No other utility company saw that one day it would be the big city it is now.”
The first resident of Cape Coral, Kenneth Schwartz, moved there in 1958.
“There were 17 lamp posts down Del Prado Boulevard and I used to patrol them and let the cooperative know when a bulb burned out,” Schwartz said at an LCEC 60th anniversary event.
After that, service was extended to the Yacht Club area. At the time, waterfront property was selling for less than $2,000 a lot with terms of $20 down, and $20 a month.
Since then, Cape Coral has grown rapidly and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. There was one resident in December 1958 and 10,000 residents on its 10th birthday in 1968.
Today, there are approximately 80,000 LCEC customers in the city, the largest municipality that LCEC serves.
The Lee County Electric Cooperative is a not-for-profit electric distribution cooperative providing electricity to nearly 210,000 customers in Southwest Florida and more than 8,000 miles of energized line.
It’s one of the largest cooperatives in the United States and one of the largest employers in Lee County. Cooperative membership is open to all customers within the service territory.
“Marco Island has the largest customers in terms of using electricity. The Marco Marriott is a big customer,” Ryan said. “The city of Cape Coral is a large customer, but if you took all of the city facilities and compared Cape Coral, Marco Island, Sanibel and Everglades City, compared to them, Cape Coral is by far the largest.”
Many LCEC employees live in Cape Coral and north Lee County.
“We work here and we live here,” Ryan said. “It’s our community.”
Ryan has been with LCEC for 23 years and she says so much has changed since then.
There used to be meter readers at each house. Customers used to stand in line or wait until business hours to pay their bill or address their accounts.
Now Ryan says the only office where you can still do that is in Immokalee because everything can be done online or through a mobile phone.
While Southwest Florida residents don’t have much of a choice when it comes to who powers their homes, LCEC doesn’t let that stop them from providing topnotch customer service.
“They’re always looking out for the best interests of all members,” Ryan said. “Everyone who works at LCEC lives here in Southwest Florida. Our kids go to school here. We volunteer for agencies here. This is our community.”
The linemen who bring electricity to Southwest Florida residents also have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world and Ryan also likes seeing how committed they are.
“They get calls at 2 a.m. because two customers are out of power, but they act like the house is on fire. ‘Oh my gosh, I have to get up and get three people their power back.’ It’s so interesting to see how hard they work.”