Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Obama to visit center of economic collapse in Florida

FORT MYERS — When President Obama arrives today in Republican-heavy Lee County to push his economic stimulus plan, he'll be at the epicenter of Florida's broken economy.

Residents say they hope the president can turn things around — the county's unemployment rate is at a record 10 percent — though they're a little embarrassed he chose their town to highlight as ground zero.

"I heard Obama's coming because he thinks this is the worst slum in America," said Lawrence Chappell, a pool service worker who rents a duplex in Lehigh Acres, about 5 miles east of Fort Myers.

The president is scheduled to speak to 1,500 people at noon in a town-hall setting at Fort Myers' downtown convention center and will be introduced by Gov. Charlie Crist. The popular Republican governor could help buoy support for the stimulus package that the Senate is expected to vote on today.

In the past year, Lee County has come to lead the state in a host of troubling indicators: home foreclosure rates (12.5 percent), the growth of Medicaid rolls (23 percent), food-stamp requests (up 65 percent) and the decrease in the median value of homes (38 percent).

"We are the perfect poster child for the economic stimulus plan that's proposed to demonstrate the resiliency of the American people," said Richard Thompson, president of the Lehigh Acres Chamber of Commerce.

The streets of Lehigh Acres, a planned community of about 68,000, are dotted with abandoned homes in foreclosure and new homes that were never occupied. Of the 3,101 homes currently for sale in Lehigh Acres, the chamber estimates that 2,239 were built since 2003.

"The five houses to the right of us are all empty, same with the three houses to the left," said Alex Diaz, an out-of-work truck driver, as his sons bathed the family chihuahua, Carla, in the driveway. "I might leave, too, like everyone else."

A few blocks from the Diaz home, past countless "For Sale'' signs and others promising 100 percent financing, a yard sale is set up with children's clothes and VHS movies from the 1990s. It's one way Gary and Lara Martini, like many others in Lehigh Acres, are trying to make ends meet.

Their only steady income is the $50 a week Lara Martini takes home from her part-time job at Quiznos.

The Martinis' four kids — 2, 3, 4 and 6 — don't know who Obama is, but their father said he's counting on Obama to "get us back up on our feet again."

Also hopeful is Ken Wilkinson, Lee County's property appraiser and creator of Florida's Save Our Homes amendment, which shields homesteaded property owners from big increases in property tax assessments. The total property value of all buildings in Lee County fell $8 billion — or 8 percent — from 2007 to 2008.

"I'm a Republican, but I mean it when I say I want Obama to be successful in this effort," Wilkinson said. "He's our president, and we need him here."

Rufus Lowe, 18, said he has had no luck applying for jobs at Publix and McDonald's, even though he has a high school diploma and is enrolled at a community college.

Lowe's father is on disability from work. His mother isn't working either. The Fort Myers teenager said he tries to stay upbeat despite the hard times. That's why he lined up outside the Harborside Event Center two days ahead of Obama's visit to secure his chance to see the president.

"He picked the right time to come, I'll tell you that," Lowe said. "People need to hear him tell us what he's going to do to make things better."

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.

Obama to visit center of economic collapse in Florida 02/09/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 11, 2009 8:44am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Tim Tebow Week: 12 stories from his Tampa Bay tour

    Minors

    Alas, Tim Tebow Week — eight baseball games in eight nights that reunited Tebow with his Tampa Bay friends and admirers — is over. The fun ended Thursday night.

    St. Lucie Mets outfielder Tim Tebow meets fans and signs autographs before the beginning of the Mets at Threshers game at Spectrum Field on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017 in Clearwater. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times

  2. Democrat Philip Levine won't attack Trump. Can he be Florida governor?

    Perspective

    If he decides to run, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine will be the most enigmatic and unpredictable candidate for Florida governor in 2018.

    Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine is introduced before speaking at a Tampa Tiger Bay Club meeting at the Ferguson Law Center in Tampa on May 19. (LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times)
  3. What you need to know for Friday, Aug. 18

    News

    Catching you up on overnight happenings, and what you need to know today.

    Read 'Hellfire from Above,' inside the Tampa Electric Co. power plant accident that left five people dead. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
  4. Tampa is training ground for Team USA inline skating

    Human Interest

    TAMPA — The United States once dominated the sport known as international outdoor inline speed skating.

    Cotton Yarborough is one of five people from the Tampa Bay area on the national inline speed skating team. The team is competing in the world championships Aug. 27 in China. [Courtesy of Frank Holland]
  5. Grocery and hotel deals in reach for Tampa Encore project

    Economic Development

    TAMPA — After failing to land both Publix and Walmart, the Tampa Housing Authority says it is close to a deal to bring another well-known grocer to its Encore project.

    The Tampa Housing Authority's Encore project has housing like The Reed, pictured, but no retail. It is in talks to bring a grocer and two hotels to the site on the west side of Nebraska Avenue close to downtown Tampa.