The future of Estero lies in the decisions of today!
Engage Estero members Allan Bowditch, Julie Yellig, Jim Gilmartin, Jim Shields, Estero Village Council member George Zalucki
Settlers have been arriving in the Estero area since the 1800s, but this year, Estero enters its 10th year as an official Florida municipality. Over the past two decades, Estero has changed dramatically. While some residents are resistant, many see the growth as exciting and progressive.
Regardless of differing perspectives, the story of Estero is being written each day.
Author Maya Angelou once said, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.”
Estero – Spanish for estuary – was a major citrus producing area in the 1800s. In the late 1890s, a communal-living group of intellectuals called the Koreshans wrote one of the most remarkable chapters in Estero’s history. They came to Southwest Florida from Chicago, searching for a site to build their notion of an earthly utopia.
Along the banks of the Estero River, they built a self-contained town complete with a sawmill, cement works, publishing house, bakery, machine shop, general store, art gallery, symphony, plant nursery and more.
After the death of their leader, Cyrus Teed, the group slowly dissolved. Today, more than a dozen buildings, hundreds of acres of land and an extensive archive remain at Estero’s historic Koreshan State Park.
By 1921, a school with indoor plumbing called the Broadway Estero School was built to accommodate 100 students. Until the 1970s, much of the settlement and development in Estero was near the river, then called Estero Creek.
When Joe Pavich, Sr., owner of J Pavich Realty World, moved to Estero with his family in the late 1980s, there were 750 homes.
“In 1992, I started working for a builder in the Fountain Lakes community, and it was a challenge to get people to look at properties and move here. They wanted Naples or Fort Myers,” Pavich said. “I always say, you couldn’t get a pizza delivered. Estero has evolved from the middle of nowhere to a true destination.”
At the turn of the millennium, Estero was beginning to flourish. Several dedicated citizens formed the Estero Council of Community Leaders (ECCL) to address residents’ concerns and suggestions for how the community should manage growth. The ECCL, now known as Engage Estero, was committed to creating a vision and a voice for the residents of Estero when it was under the jurisdiction of Lee County.
On November 4, 2014, a resounding 86% of Estero residents voted for Estero’s incorporation, which resulted in the community officially becoming the Village of Estero on December 31, 2014.
Estero Continues to be a Desired Location
Since then, many factors have contributed to Estero’s growth. Its desirable climate, landscapes and Mediterranean style architecture, plus low municipal taxes and new infrastructure, are just some of the things that have lured people from all over the country.
The Village of Estero maintains the lowest tax rate in the region – much owed to its “government lite” approach – boasting the leanest staff in Southwest Florida. This, in part, has enabled the Village to pay off its remaining debt seven years early, saving over $4 million in interest.
Forward-thinking processes and mutually beneficial public-private partnerships have been the hallmark of Village Manager Steve Sarkozy’s management style since his arrival in 2015, just six months after Estero was incorporated.
One innovative project now under his guidance is the Family Entertainment Center, which is in final negotiations and slated to break ground this February. Two firms are partnering with the Village to develop an entertainment district on the 20-acre site owned by the Village on Williams Road.
Chicken and Pickle is a national leader in the provision of private pickleball facilities, and High 5 is a provider of multi-generational recreational activities, also with facilities across the nation. This public-private partnership will provide much-anticipated recreational activities, along with a financial return to the community estimated at over $1 million annually.
Real Estate Perspective
Entrance to Lutgert Hall at Florida Gulf Coast University
The local housing market (and Florida as a whole) has not displayed a significant slowdown in 2023, despite challenges posed by higher mortgage rates and home prices in desirable locations such as Estero. This positive trend, paired with increasing inventory, indicates that the market is far from stagnating.
According to the FGCU Lutgert College of Business Regional Economic Indicators Report for December 2023, single-family building permits in Southwest Florida were up 67% in October 2023 compared to a year ago. Similarly, the October 2023 Local Market Update provided by Bonita Springs-Estero Realtors shows a 62.3% increase in new single-family home listings and an 83.2% increase in condo listings in the immediate area.
Estero’s housing market continues to adapt and attract new residents, offering opportunities in a growing and changing landscape.
“Inventory is coming back up, prices have stabilized, and we are expecting a great season,” Pavich said. “People still want to live in Florida.”
The increase in the availability of homes for sale has increased sharply since last year, up nearly 50% from 289 to 428 in 2023. Pavich noted that his realty team is not seeing an abundance of mortgages for young families – they are staying put or renting. The shock of new interest rates, which have climbed from 2% to about 7%, is holding some buyers back. For clients hoping for lower adjustable rate mortgages, it isn’t happening.
The majority of home purchases are from cash buyers. While prices have leveled out, gone are the days of a new home in Estero for $250,000. According to the Bonita Springs-Estero Realtors Local Market Report, the median sales price year-to-date for single family homes in the area is $715,000, a 2.3% increase from 2022.
“My new saying is, ‘400-500k is the new 200-300k for single family homes,’” said Pavich.
He also stated that most new construction single-family homes in Estero will sell for $500,000 or above.
New rental properties are cropping up throughout Estero and all of Southwest Florida, so the rental market is strong as well. Builders are making these properties just as fast as companies are filling them.
Chris Westley, Ph.D., dean of FGCU’s Lutgert College of Business, is cautiously optimistic. “If the U.S. economy falls into a recession in 2024, our region will contract even more, as our region tends to overheat during booms and overcorrect during busts,” Westley noted. “Most models I have seen for 2024 suggest continued economic growth in 2024, around 2%, with low probabilities of a recession – which is less likely to happen in election years in any case. But we’ll see. It seems every day brings new reports of layoffs in some sectors, which is simply a painful process of correction as markets reallocate resources from unproductive to more productive uses.”
Overall, the local housing market is strong and is generally predicted to remain so for the foreseeable future. Florida has had some of the strongest housing appreciation rates in the country over the past decade.
In some ways, however, expensive housing can impede economic growth and have an unequal impact on those who need more affordable housing.
“Perhaps the biggest challenge to Estero’s economy will be providing workforce housing for the service sector,” said Westley. “Many of these workers already live quite far from their Estero employers. The higher the cost of living for this sector, the greater the pressure on wages required to attract them.”
State and local governments will eventually have to devise real solutions to keep the average worker nearby.
This issue is top-of-mind for concerned citizens such as Allan Bowditch, chief communications officer for Engage Estero. Like many others, he sees the need for the Village to take on a more proactive role in facilitating workforce housing to ensure teachers, lecturers, healthcare workers, police and firefighters have the ability to live locally.
“If I had to choose only one item I would like to see addressed and actioned in our community,” noted Bowditch, “it would be the need to implement actions to help our lower-paid professionals live locally by putting in place initiatives that have been used elsewhere regarding workforce housing. This perspective is also endorsed by Professor Shelton Weeks, FGCU professor of economics and finance, and Dr. Adam Molloy, Lee County School District director for planning growth and capacity.”
At Engage Estero’s recent meeting on the future of local schools, Chris Patricca, a Lee County School Board member, said that the district (Lee County Schools) is “updating benefits to attract and retain teachers. The challenge is affordable workforce housing.”
The district is collaborating with other entities (Lee County Sheriff’s Office, Lee Health, Fire Rescue districts and others) to address this issue. Because of the high cost of housing, recruiting and retaining teachers in the area is challenging.
Growth, Growth, and More Growth
Growth is taking place in many communities around the country, particularly in locations with attractive qualities like Estero.
Entrance to River Creek Community.
“There are approximately 100 different commercial, residential and rental projects on the board in Estero,” said Pavich.
Northward on Three Oaks Parkway past Estero Parkway, 5,000 homes have been added in the last five years, and another 3,000 units will be built in that area. When the last remaining limited parcels of land within the Village Center (between US 41, Three Oaks Parkway, Estero Parkway and Coconut Road) are built out, it is estimated this would add 3,000-4,000 additional homes in Estero.
Along east Corkscrew Road, 26,000 housing units have already been approved. Of that number, 19,000 have yet to be built. Many of these new communities have expressed serious interest in being annexed by Estero, which offers a lower tax rate. If that happens, the Village of Estero could rapidly double in size.
The only thing slowing construction in some cases has been a lack of building materials. The scarcity of electrical panels caused production delays at River Creek, one of the newest developments on East Corkscrew.
This past February, Estero Fire Rescue opened a new, state-of-the-art fire station to service the eastern corridor and provide training facilities to nearby stations. Station 45 covers the area from Alico Road down to the Lee-Collier county line, extending east along Corkscrew Road. Cameratta Companies donated five acres of land for the new station, which serves the Cameratta communities of Corkscrew Shores, The Preserve at Corkscrew, The Place at Corkscrew and Verdana Village.
“The Village of Estero has been growing in leaps and bounds,” said Estero Fire Chief Scott Vanderbrook. “Eight years ago, the community and commissioners began planning for a new fire station on east Corkscrew to meet anticipated demand.”
The increase in traffic density due to the rapid build-out is a considerable challenge facing Estero.
“Given that there are only two main roads running north-south through Estero, and we are one of the top five growth markets in the nation, it just fuels the issues we already have,” Sarkozy said. “We’ve been dealing with this literally since the village was incorporated.”
In the 2023 Q4 Greater Estero Community Report, Bowditch wrote, “Urbanization is, unfortunately, not something that can be stopped, but it can be made to fit with the vision that the Village has for residents in Estero.”
The Vision Evolves
Despite the explosive growth, Village Council has worked hard to create and maintain standards that are often tough on developers.
“In Estero, we have a very high standard for development that the council, over time, has established by adopting a Comprehensive Plan and then a Land Development Code that guides where development can occur and what standards are to be applied,” said Sarkozy. “They’re the most restrictive type of codes in this region, but it’s still been a challenge.”
The Village made several wise land purchases in order to retain control of development, one such essential location being 62 1/2 acres on the corner of U.S. 41 and Corkscrew Road. With plenty of input from the community, the Village Council decided to restrict the growth by designating 30 acres south of the Estero River as a preserve.
The Village is also in discussions with the School District of Lee County on a 72-acre parcel off Three Oaks Parkway that was initially going to be a new school. “We would like to preserve that,” Sarkozy stated. “We would also like to work with the school district to preserve the space around the high school.”
Another small, yet important, purchase of 10 acres at the end of East Broadway called River Oaks enabled the Village to stop the development of 35 condominium units along the river. The Village worked with the owner to buy it and turn it into a preserve.
“We’re looking at ways for the remaining land that’s available to do smart development that gives us density and a mix of uses so that you don’t have to drive a great distance to access the entertainment, the recreational and social things that we need as a community,” Sarkozy said. “It’s a daunting task but just an incredible change that is before us.”
Along with members of the Village Council, organizations like Engage Estero have been working to create and maintain a cohesive vision for the residents of Estero and encourage them to use their voices. An important question remains as the story of Estero unfolds: Will you be merely reading the chapters, or will you be a co-author?
Fire Station 45 is a major addition to Estero’s East Corridor.