Article Courtesy of Wink News
By Peter Fleischer
Published January 20, 2022
Should a developer building high-rise condos that will bring in millions of
dollars get a tax break? The City of Fort Myers has paid out more than $84
million over the past three years.
It’s a large number,
but sometimes to get those projects going and built in key
areas, the Fort Myers Community Redevelopment Agency allows
for millions of dollars in tax rebates.
The Mayor, and others, are concerned because the city
doesn’t have a full-time person on staff devoted to
double-checking the math.
There’s no shortage of projects and growth in downtown Fort
Myers. New high-rises seemingly pop up on every corner.
Some of these developments might only be going up because
the city helped make them happen.
Michele Hylton-Terry, Executive Director of the Fort Myers Community
Redevelopment Agency (CRA), said, “the purpose of the CRA is to increase the
tax base and help remove slum and blight.”
To eventually increase that tax base, Hylton-Terry said they provide
low-interest loans and tax rebates.
In just the last year. The CRA provided rebates for five different projects
across the area.
In the case of a tax rebate, developers ask for a set dollar amount. A CRA-contracted
outside expert makes a recommendation. Then the CRA approves a final rebate.
Fort Myers resident Gene Gibson said, “they’ve focused primarily on luxury
Gibson has lived in Fort Myers for years and watches the CRA’s spending
closely, even writing several op-ed articles.
He didn’t hold back when describing their spending habits.
“Abusive. A CRA can be an innovative program that can help, but there are a
lot of tools in the chest,” said Gibson.
Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson said, “it allows incentive for a developer
to come into an area that is not attractive to other developers.”
Mayor Anderson, head of the CRA, supports the concept but wants to hire a
full-time underwriter to evaluate projects and double-check the math.
“Long-term, I don’t think anyone is looking out for the city itself,” said
Anderson. “We’ve got three or four figures, I just want to make sure the
figure we settle on is absolutely the right figure.”
“He is 100% on the mark with that. Too often the city council just accepts
what the developer says is their profit margin,” said Gibson.
CRA Commissioner Fred Burson doesn’t believe a full-time underwriter’s
necessary. “We pay these individuals on a fee basis. I think they represent
us adequately. I think it’s still cheaper to do it on a case-by-case basis
than pay an individual full-time.”
Anderson says he’s excited about all the new development Fort Myers has seen
but he won’t vote for another dollar of rebates until someone runs the
numbers with the city’s best interests in mind.
“I want to make sure that we’re acting in the best interests of the citizens
and that we’re comfortable that the numbers have been presented to us are
absolutely spot on,” said Anderson.
It’s important to note, the tax rebate money comes after developers have
paid their city and county tax bill, and it’s paid back after project
checkpoints are met.
The City of Fort Myers says the area is close to reaching capacity. With
this area thriving, they hope to put businesses and more affordable housing
in areas that can use some help.
The luminary, Campo Felice, Prima Luce, all are projects built, or in the
process of construction in downtown Fort Myers.
They also all received millions of dollars in tax rebates from the Fort
Myers Community Redevelopment Agency.
CRA Chair and Fort Myers Mayor Anderson and CRA Commissioner Liston Bochette
claim the CRA has driven a lot of the growth.
Anderson said, “the CRA has done tremendous work in the downtown area.”
Bochette agreed, saying, “it’s obviously been a success in the past and the
goal now is to keep it a success in the future.”
These projects are also luxury buildings in an area where people struggle to
find affordable housing.
“That’s where I think we need to be putting more of our efforts.
Incentivizing developers to take those risks in those areas so that we can
hopefully see the same transformation,” said Anderson.
It’s a complicated problem for the CRA. Commissioner Burson explains they
can’t tell developers how and where to spend their money. “By law, they can
only be spent in the area they’re in. So I can’t take money from downtown
and spend it on Cleveland Avenue.”
City records show the CRA has allowed for nearly $30 million in tax rebates
for luxury living spaces since the start of 2019, to help transform the
“Basically, the taxpayers are subsidizing the building of luxury condos and
apartments.” Gibson said, “I just think there are better things the city can
do with its taxpayer money.”
Now the tides may be changing. Burson believes because of how quickly
downtown Fort Myers has grown, they may offer fewer incentives or TIFs, tax
increment financing, for developers to build.
Instead, working to push projects into areas that need the help.
“You’re gonna see the TIF awards probably be reduced because it’s no longer
necessary. What we’re trying to do is increase the TIF awards in the other
areas so that private businesses are encouraged to go there instead of
downtown,” said Burson.
Bochette said, “we can’t help the bottom if the top is not rowing the boat
hard enough. It’s a balanced portfolio and we’re striving to get a more
balanced portfolio in our building among our citizens where everyone enjoys
the quality of life here.”
Gibson hopes the CRA will choose new developments carefully. “Yeah, I’d like
to see different types of projects. But even if you find a good project.
This is a way to jumpstart a process. Developers also need to have skin in
CRA officials also point out; while luxury projects aren’t designed with
most in mind, they can provide benefits to everyone.
Burson said, “it increases the tax base for Fort Myers tremendously. The
more wealth we provide, they bear a bigger portion of the tax base. The rest
of the city gets that revenue and it’s spent all over the city.”
Only time will tell.
The CRA hopes to provide rebates for affordable housing projects in the
future, but the city is also evaluating how it spends its money.
Mayor Anderson has an agenda item in Tuesday’s city council meeting calling
for an audit of every penny spent in the city.