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Lee County top place to make a living? Locals scoff at behind-the-times designation

July 25, 2009
By DREW WINCHESTER, dwinchester@breezenewspapers.com
Lee County got some positive national media attention this week when a magazine named the area one of the top 25 counties in the United States to make a living. Unfortunately, local officials say the news is at least a year and a half behind the times. In an article “Where the jobs are,” CNN Money Magazine listed Lee County number 23 of 25 places with “plentiful job opportunities”, stating that “Each year, an influx of young workers contribute to the county’s 290,000 person labor force, and a new initiative is aiming to provide jobs for all of them.” The article makes no mention of the 13 percent unemployment rate, a record, nor the negative job growth of 8.2 percent between 2008 - 2009, or that 17,500 jobs were lost during that same time frame due largely to the collapse of the housing market. Barbara Hartman, from the Career and Service Center in Fort Myers, works with people every day who are unemployed. She said the article’s title would have been more appropriate “a year and half ago”, and that the facts of the article are “a little dated.” “There’s such a high unemployment rate. There are over 35,000 people out of work right now. It’s a historical number for us,” Hartman said. “We have all those elements in place to attract business ... but a year and half ago we were one of the fastest-growing areas.” Hartman said the county’s actual labor force is 274,000, not 290,000 as stated in the article, as members of the population have begun leaving in search of work in other areas. “We’ve talked to many people who have relocated. They’ve followed the job flow, going where the jobs are,” Hartman said. “In the past we’ve had many people coming to Florida and Lee for employment ... but now it’s going to be very tough to absorb more job seekers into our economy.” Commissioner Frank Mann, too, thought the article was “half” right: the half that focused on affordable commercial real estate. Regarding the employment aspect, Mann said, “It is a good time to hire because you can hire people and at fire sale prices. But anybody who comes here is going to have to compete with 35,000 other people out of work.” Mention of the high-skill, high-wage job growth in the article was good, Mann said, because it will allow industry to grow and lead to “ultimate good news.” But Mann, who represents one of the harder hit districts in Lee County, added that the writer, or writers, ultimately missed out on what was really happening in Lee County. “Whoever worked on that long distance, they missed out on one half of the equation,” Mann said. Not everyone was critical. The Lee County Economic Development Office touted the story this week via a press release While the release does concede, “the job growth rate in the Money Magazine article doesn’t account for the general deterioration of economic conditions in 2009”, it also mentions “promising advancements in job growth during the calender year” in the same paragraph. The Lee County EDO is charged with a very specific mission: to attract high- wage, high-skill, jobs to Lee County. The County Commission has set aside $25 million in incentives for that purpose. The EDO says it has attracted 375 new jobs, to be developed over the next five years, by using that money that has been set aside. The information in the CNN article mentions both Gartner Inc., and Paramount Transportation Logistics Services, companies that have recently decided to relocate or expand their existing businesses using those financial initiatives. EDO Director Jim Moore did not return requests seeking comment. The Money Magazine article can be found at money.cnn.com.

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