Here we grow: Collier County’s Mark Strain on where we’re headed

Lance Shearer

Collier County has major growth and development headed its way.

Population of the county is projected to at least double, and quite possibly triple, in the next few decades. The bulk of that new residential footprint, and the infrastructure and commercial establishments to support it, will by necessity come to the east, in places still covered by slash pines.

Major residential developments are in the planning stages. Collier County is planning ahead to deal with growth expected to mushroom in the next few decades.

While the vast majority of us, the current inhabitants of the county, go blissfully about our daily routine without giving more than passing thought to the intricacies of managing and organizing that growth, so that roads are where they need to be for new residential developments, with an appropriate mix land use, county government doesn’t have the luxury of allowing the future to just happen.

The county’s “point man” for development issues, the staffer who has the task of keeping tabs on new and upcoming projects throughout Collier County, is Mark Strain. Wearing two hats in county government, he is both chairman of the county’s planning commission, and chief hearing examiner.

Mark Strain, chairman of the county's planning council, and hearing examiner, discusses upcoming development . Collier County is planning ahead to deal with growth expected to mushroom in the next few decades.

Strain is something of a walking encyclopedia of growth, carrying the details and statistics of dozens of projects in his head, and able to rattle off density and price point numbers for all of them. As part of his mission, he has put together a presentation of where the county is headed, and makes the rounds of local organizations, speaking to several dozen each year to help educate and keep people informed.

Even as someone who spends his days immersed in new projects and future projections, Strain says he too sometimes finds what is going on to be mindboggling.

“I’ve been here 42 years, and I never would have expected this,” he said. From just 2010 to 2016, Collier County’s population grew by 11.2 percent, hearkening back to the decades when the county regularly topped the nation for the pace of growth.

The placement of new growth is severely constrained due to greenspace and environmental restrictions, meaning that in the areas it can occur, density will increase, sometimes markedly. As one example, he showed a slide of a project currently in the works for the intersection of US 41 East and Davis Blvd., the Gateway Mini-Triangle project, which looks more like Miami than Naples, especially Naples east of the Gordon River.

Workers load roof tile on a new home at Ave Maria in this file photo. Lance Shearer/Special to the Daily News
Workers load roof tile on a new home at Ave Maria in this file photo. Lance Shearer/Special to the Daily News

“We’re a constricted county,” said Strain. “In Collier, 77 percent of the area is permanent conservation area.” Taking into account all the space already used, less than 10 percent of the county is available for potential development.

Commercial development firms are already carving out their pieces of the pie, with massive new projects in various stages of preparation. With the “urban border” set one mile east of Collier Blvd., major developers have five big town-sized projects in the works.

“Collier Enterprises has Rural Lands West – they could have people living there in two years,” said Strain, with 10,000 residential units projected. “Barron Collier Companies, who did Ave Maria, have Hogan Island.” The town of Ave Maria alone, incidentally, will be larger than the City of Naples on its own, he added.

Other projects in the hopper include Immokalee Road Rural Village, Collier Lakes, and Collier Lakes.

“It doesn’t mean that all of these are going to be built,” Strain said. “The developers get the pre-planning done – that’s a lot cheaper than moving dirt. They don’t really build until the market is right” – something that commercial lenders have a lot to say about.

New and expanded roads and interchanges will be key to keeping traffic flowing. No fewer than four new flyovers or overpasses are planned for county roads, in addition to the only current example at Airport Rd. and Golden Gate Parkway. A new interchange on I-75 east of Collier Blvd. will help Golden Gate Estates residents reach jobs nearer the coast.

With two stores open in the county, Aldi is preparing to double their presence with two more. Collier County is planning ahead to deal with growth expected to mushroom in the next few decades.

All the new residents will need to eat, and restaurants and groceries are coming to serve them.

Lucky’s Market is adding two new stores to their current one, and Aldi, the European discount grocery chain, plans two more in addition to their two existing stores. Walmart has five grocery locations, and it still seems as though Publix is on every corner.

With all the growth, Strain says this is still the best place to live.

“The county will grow. At least we have a handle on it,” he said.