IMMOKALEE – Adelia Cardenas has found a job after almost six months of looking for work.
The reason is that a significant piece of the economy is returning to the Immokalee community.
In 2005, Hurricane Wilma ripped through Southwest Florida and severely damaged four units at the Immokalee State Farmers' Market. Six and a half years later – after an estimated loss of more than $1.5 million in revenue, years of disagreements with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) over the cost of the damage, and 90,000 square feet of repairs – Immokalee can finally close an ugly chapter of its history.
The reconstruction of the Immokalee market is complete, final inspections are under way, and the newly fashioned market is expected to reopen at full capacity within 30 days.
"It has been a very long road and hopefully it is one of the last remaining relics of a very terrible hurricane that they faced six years ago," said Sterling Ivey, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
The state agency owns the market, which sits west of the Immokalee Regional Airport. The state operates a system of 13 farmers' markets that specialize in marketing fresh Florida produce.
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How important is the Farmers' Market to Immokalee?
A town that already was struggling with high unemployment saw its economy worsen during the past seven years. First came the damage done by Hurricane Wilma and then the recession. The return of the market will bring several hundred jobs with it.
"It provides a lot of people in this town with work: truck drivers, packers, and it gives our local growers an outlet for their produce," said Jerry Hubbart, the senior market manager for 25 years. "In turn, they spend money at our restaurants and the stores."
As Hubbart is talking about the local economy, a young woman stops by his office.
"It's been quiet around here for so long and now all of the sudden everyone is coming around," he said with a laugh.
Cardenas was looking for work. She asked Hubbart if he speaks Spanish. He doesn't, but another employee translates. The woman has heard that the market is going to be opening and is hoping to be hired.
"Yes, it absolutely improves the local economy," Hubbart said after directing Cardenas to one of the packing houses. "People are starting to walk in (for jobs). All the packing houses are going to start hiring and getting busy. It's going to be a zoo around here in no time. It's crazy."
Southwest Florida provides much of the nation's fresh vegetables and citrus between November and February. Most of the produce goes up the east coast. But it can go anywhere from Texas to California to Canada. It goes to Wal-Mart and the military, even to mom-and-pop operations.
"Immokalee is a very rich agricultural community and it's one the state farmers' markets that is available in Southwest Florida," Ivey said. "It's a great location. People who live in and around Immokalee can go to one central place to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables."
The final cost of reconstruction will land between $5 million to $5.5 million, all paid for by FEMA. Reconstruction started last April by a Naples-based general contractor DeAngelis Diamond Construction, which won the contract out of 17 bids. More than 200 people worked on the reconstruction for almost a year before completing the project.
The new buildings will be built to withstand 120 mph constant winds and gusts up to 156 mph.
With one long road behind, there's a new challenge ahead. The market will be at full occupancy within a few weeks and Hubbart said eight companies are on a waiting list for space.
"You won't even be able to see asphalt and this is a 30-acre complex. We'll weigh 150 to 200 semi-trucks a day," said Hubbart, pointing to the empty lot. "We're just trying to get all of our tenants moved in and get everything kind of back to normal. It's a good problem to have."