Lee County on edge

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Lee County on edge

Gloria Chilson and her husband lived in this Lehigh Acres home for 18 years before losing it to foreclosure, as have many in the community.

Few people imagined Lee County would become a symbol of recession.

So the reaction to President Barack Obama’s visit today is tinged with fear of what it meant for the area’s image. This community’s economy remains tied to attracting tourists and retirees.

“We’re not trying to hide anything, but what gets out there about Fort Myers to our northern neighbors is very important because, if it’s negative information, it could hurt us in terms of tourism, and that’s our No. 1,” said Fort Myers City Council member Levon Simms.

National media attention has been unforgiving. In what many residents here saw as the biggest blow to their reputation yet, a writer for The New Yorker recently referred to the homes in Lehigh Acres, an unincorporated subdivision, as “the slums of the future.” The article was the subject of at least two conversations at a local Starbucks on Monday.

“They actually said ‘slums,'” bristled Mary McBride, who moved to Lehigh Acres from Kansas City in 1995. “It’s all a nightmare. What do you think this is doing to our property values? When my friends ask me what’s going on down there I say don’t believe what you hear.”

Four ZIP codes in the area were among the nation’s top 20 in terms of homes that had mortgages underwater. The metropolitan district covering Fort Myers, Cape Coral and Lehigh Acres had the highest foreclosure rate in the nation — 12 percent — at the end of 2008, according to RealtyTrac. Unemployment is at 10 percent.

Milena Palenzuela, a speech pathologist, moved here with her husband three years ago. He has since lost his job as a surveyor, has not been able to get another one, and their house value has dropped 50 percent. Bad press, she said, is the least of her problems.

“It is bad press but living here is bad,” Palenzuela said.

Yet bad press in itself has become another obstacle for residents who for so long liked to brag that they were living in paradise.

“I think there’s been a picture painted of this whole situation that’s not totally right,” said Jane Keyhoe, a retiree from New Jersey who lives in a condo complex that overlooks the Caloosahatchee River. “Fort Myers is a diverse community and there are some very nice parts.”

Public officials in the area are trying to put on a positive spin. Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson Jr., said Obama’s trip marked Southwest Florida not as a place of decline, but a “symbol of future recovery.”

“That’s a very big difference,” Nelson said, vigorously nodding his head.

Simms had already begun envisioning the ideal effect of today’s media coverage.

“The president’s going to get off that plane and it’s going to be 81 degrees and he’ll open his collar and roll up his sleeves and everyone is going to see how great it is in Fort Myers,” Simms said. “Yeah, OK, we have a lot of foreclosures. But we’ve also got sugary white sand.”

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