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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]

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