Collier County economy on right path, FGCU professor says

— Collier County’s economy is trending in the right direction to recover.

But it will take a long time, said Shelton Weeks, director of Florida Gulf Coast University’s Lucas Institute for Real Estate Development and Finance.

“All of the economic indicators are pointing in the right direction,” Weeks told a group during a Greater Naples Leadership Inc. daylong forum Jan. 4.

About 50 people filled the Naples Daily News Community Room, 1110 Immokalee Road, for the nonprofit’s economic workshop. Topics discussed included an overview of Collier County’s economy and the state and regional economic development initiatives.

While Southwest Florida is in the recovery mode, Collier and Lee counties are still a long way from having full employment, Weeks said.

In November, Collier County had an unemployment rate of 10 percent, down from 11.4 percent in September and 2.3 percentage points lower than a year ago, according to a report by the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity.

Meanwhile, Lee County’s unemployment is 10.5 percent, which is better than September’s rate of 11.2 percent and down 2.7 percentage points from November 2010. The national unemployment rate was

8.6 percent in November.

In terms of economic development, having a high unemployment rate is both a bad thing and a good thing, Weeks said.

When looking at an opportunity to open a business in Southwest Florida, employers look at the current situation and see a workforce that is ready and available to work, Weeks said. The downside for existing businesses is a lack of revenue because people are cautious with their money.

When speaking about new construction, Weeks said there is not a lot at this time, which is what is needed for the real estate market to clear. And with the real estate market trending down, Weeks said businesses may consider Southwest Florida because it’s more affordable.

In addition, Weeks believes if FGCU graduates stay in Southwest Florida, it could also help attract companies to the area, he said.

Without the Collier County Economic Development Council, which closed in September, attendee John Holdeman said he is curious about how the county is trying to attract new businesses to the area, he said.

The North Naples resident asked Weeks if there is a plan in place to research what type of businesses, other than tourism, could be attracted to Southwest Florida.

The biggest concern Holdeman heard Wednesday morning is education. Moreover, the workforce is not meeting the needs of future employees and that is concerning when looking at growth, he said.

“I hope we can continue to grow and be successful,” Holdeman said.

During the morning session, Russ Weyer, a senior associate at Fishkind and Associates, also addressed an overview of Collier County’s economy.

The session also included vignettes and plans for the future from local entrepreneurs, such as Paul Woods, Algenol Biofuels Inc.’s CEO and co-founder, and Natalie Hahn O’Flaherty, Allen Systems Group’s senior vice president of marketing.

Algenol Biofuels Inc., a pilot bio-refinery in Fort Myers with a 30-acre plant, will produce ethanol directly from carbon dioxide, sunlight and saltwater, using blue-green algae in patented photobioreactors. There will be 3,000 reactors, with the capacity to produce about 100,000 gallons of fuel-grade ethanol a year.

Wood said half of the company’s 150 employees hired hold a doctorate; 100 of those employees work in Southwest Florida.

Allen Systems Group (ASG) Software Solutions, a Collier County-headquartered global IT service developer/provider for mainframe, distributed service, and cloud computing environments, has about 1,300 employees in more than 60 of its offices worldwide, including 18 in U.S., others in Europe and South America.

The software company has more than 3,400 customers worldwide.

Currently, ASG has about

235 employees in its three Naples offices. The company has space for 400 employees in Naples and intends to fill it eventually. This year, ASG wants to add 10 percent to 15 percent of employees in Naples, said Craig Bamberg, ASG Software Solutions spokesman.

“We will continue to look at hiring locally, but because the nature of our growth is acquisition we look at bringing employees from acquisitions,” Hahn O’Flaherty told the group.

While Collier County continues to grow, Hahn O’Flaherty, who recently relocated to the Napes area from Massachusetts, said she hopes the core of the community is maintained.

Greater Naples Leadership, a nonprofit organization, is committed to educating proven leaders who wish to volunteer their services in bettering the community, according to its website.

Connect with Tracy X. Miguel at www.naplesnews.com/staff/tracy_x_miguel

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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