Up, up and away…Estero’s home prices & tourist traffic soar into the new year
Marlene Fernandez has lived in Estero since 1956. Her husband was from a pioneer family that moved here in 1898.
“We had no phones, no air conditioning, very rural, but it was a very close-knit, caring community,” she said.
In the coming months, Fernandez plans to move. For her, Estero has become too big.
“I’m a country girl,” she said one late Saturday afternoon. “I look out my front window and see 41, and there’s bumper-to-bumper traffic. Both directions.”
Yes, Estero has changed. But many other residents see these changes as exciting, progressive, creative and community-building.
In just one year—from 2020 to 2021—change has been dramatic:
Last year, the median home price was $330,000. Now, you can barely a sniff a place in Estero for less than $400,000.
Last year, Lee County Economic Development Director John Talmage said he could foresee 45,000-50,000 jobs in the next five to 10 years. This year? Talmage raised that number to 125,000.
Last year, most industry experts predicted Estero would reach 50,000 residents by the end of the decade. Now they’re saying a few years. Get ready for new zip codes?
Home Prices Continue to Climb
The scarcity in available real estate is hard to comprehend. A year ago, there were about 10,000 homes on the local market, according to Realtor Jack Mancini. Now, it’s about 3,300—or 70 percent fewer.
“People would love to sell in today’s market if they could find a place to go in the same area,” Mancini said. “But the only people selling are moving out of the area.”
While checking real-estate listings in Estero and Bonita Springs in early November, Realtor Joe Pavich, Sr., noted there were just three homes–three–that were available for under $300,000. There were only 14 under $400,000.
“And you can’t find a seasonal rental right now,” Pavich said.
What some new home communities are doing is only releasing a few lots at a time, Mancini said.
“Everyone makes their highest offer within 72 hours, and people are bidding $50,000-$100,000 more than what the builders are asking,” Mancini said.
Some buyers with deep pockets sweeten the pot with the best offer of all–cash.
“I feel bad for people who need financing,” Mancini said. “They’re getting beat all the time.”
Condos are also exceeding asking prices.
“I just listed a condo in Stoneybrook for $265,000. I had five offers within 48 hours,” Mancini said. “One offer was unbelievable. They said, ‘We’ll give you $280,000 cash with a $50,000 deposit. You can put an “as is” on the contract with no right to inspect.’”
“We’re right where we were in 2007 when the market crashed, pricing wise,” Mancini observed.
In several ways, the pandemic has been fanning the flames of the Southwest Florida real estate market. More people are working remotely—so why not work from sunny Florida?
“COVID put this market on steroids,” Pavich said. “When COVID first hit, people were shuddering and everyone was thinking, ‘What are we gonna do?’ But the way our governor managed COVID, compared to other parts of the country, everyone set their sights on Florida…I’ve seen zip codes I’ve never seen before.”
Along with people relocating from other states, many Europeans and Canadians are finally able to travel again and want to buy properties in Southwest Florida.
“For two years, the Canadians and Europeans have not been able to come,” Pavich said. “There could be a pent-up demand from foreign buyers to purchase.”
15,000 New Homes on the Horizon
A total of 15,000 homes will be built along Corkscrew Road east of Interstate 75 in the next 10-15 years. That number includes a proposed community of 5,200 homes on acreage once planned for a mine.
To serve all these new residents, Cameratta Companies—developer of four new communities on east Corkscrew—has donated land to build a new fire station.
Here’s a rundown of other new home communities under construction or planned in the Estero area:
WildBlue will add 1,100 homes in a “luxury lakeside living” community with prices ranging from $500,000 to over $4 million. Lennar is building another 369 homes at the adjacent Vista WildBlue with prices from $468,000-$767,000.
Cameratta Companies has completed build-out for Corkscrew Shores and The Preserve at Corkscrew, and The Place at Corkscrew isn’t far behind— its 1,325 homes are 95 percent sold out.
Verdana Village, Cameratta’s newest project, just opened sales in November 2021 on 2,100 acres with sprawling preserves. The community is planned for 2,400 homes and will have a retail center called The Shoppes at Verdana Village, anchored by Publix.
Also on East Corkscrew, the first phase of Corkscrew Crossing, a single-family home subdivision of 500-plus units east of Wildcat Run, has been approved by the Village of Estero.
Along Ben Hill Griffin Parkway, Tidewater by Del Webb is sold out, and Miromar Lakes is expanding with more luxury villa homes north of Florida Gulf Coast University on Lake Como. Esplanade Lake Club, with access off Alico Road, is building on the lake, too.
Along Via Coconut Point west of Genova, a mixed-use project with 330 multi-family units and commercial buildings is planned to begin construction in 2022, as is The Reserve, a multi-family complex at Via Coconut and Williams Road.
Elsewhere around town, a high-rise building will be going up at West Bay Club, and Stock Development has plans for a mixed-use commercial and multi-family project called Estero Crossing on Corkscrew Road east of Lowe’s.
The only thing slowing construction has been a lack of building materials. As a result, Estero’s taxable value on construction last year was $69.37 million, down $36 million from 2020 and $51 million from 2019.
“I talked to one of the major builders, and they had 30 homes they were trying to close on, but couldn’t get water meters,” Pavich said.
Along with supply issues, the cost of raw materials is rising. Hurricane glass is nearly double the cost. Plywood is three times as high.
As a result, Mancini said most new construction single-family homes in Estero will sell for $500,000 or above.
For a new college graduate or a young family,
“You’re getting to a point where it’s not affordable,” Mancini said. “They have to go to Lehigh Acres if they want a place that’s less than $200,000.”
Estero Well-Positioned for Commercial Development
Including some of the above residential projects, the Village of Estero issued 4,804 building permits from January 2021 through the end of October. The total construction value of those permits is over $140 million.
The Estero Medical Building and Autozone opened on Arcos Avenue—just north of Lowe’s on Corkscrew Road. The Pavich Center is planned just a hop down Corkscrew Road at Happy Hollow Lane by the railroad tracks. It will be a two-story commercial development with office space, retail and possibly a new restaurant or cafe.
North of Estero, Scotlynn and Neogenomics opened new headquarters off Alico Road near I-75 last year, and a 200,000-square–foot Amazon sorting facility opened Nov. 15, 2021. Talmage said 125,000 jobs will be created by businesses moving to the Alico corridor and the Skyplex area by the airport.
“The trend is continuing to accelerate,” he said. “Spillover from Alico Road will work its way down U.S. 41. There’s a pronounced healthcare investment in dental, medical practice and innovative health practices. Lee Health at Coconut Point has been nothing short of spectacular.”
Lee Health is currently developing plans for a 46-acre parcel it owns along U.S. 41 northwest of Coconut Road. The future mixed-use development may including residences, retail, medical offices, wellness spaces and a possible civic building.
Talmage said the demand for 50-to-100–acre parcels is “incredibly strong—but we’re running out of sites likes that.”
Estero is well positioned to become a business hub for Lee County because of its central location near the interstate and the airport. Talmage said Lee County has the highest commute times in the entire state of Florida, leading some workers to leave their jobs.
“What businesses have learned is the cost of employee turnover is very high,” he said. “If you have to replace 10 percent of your workforce every year because of commuter stress, it’s an unsustainable business model.”
Traffic is a huge issue in Lee County, Talmage said, adding that FGCU recently uncapped its enrollment from 15,000 and has been approved for up to 23,000 students. There are plans to add PhD programs, and the award-winning FGCU Daveler & Kauanui School of Entrepreneurship continues to draw bright minds to Southwest Florida.
“It’s been much more than we ever could have imagined,” Talmage said. “The students Dr. Kauanui has mentored—150 businesses launched—have made $125 million.”
Now FGCU is partnering with The School District of Lee County to build a preK-8 “innovation school” on Treeline Road north of Daniels Road, which will serve as a laboratory for FGCU’s College of Education students.
In Estero, overcrowded schools will remain an issue. The school district recently axed its plans to build a new combined elementary and middle school off Three Oaks Parkway. According to school board member Chris Patricca, Pinewoods Elementary, Three Oaks Elementary and Three Oaks Middle School are all at 115 percent capacity.
Economy Diversifies… But Tourism is Back, Too
Along with rising home values, another silver lining of the pandemic has been diversification of the Southwest Florida economy. As the hospitality industry took a hit, people found ways to adapt.
“We saw a shift of the workforce in Southwest Florida to other industries,” said Amir Neto, assistant professor of economics at FGCU. “With a diverse economy, an area becomes more resilient.”
And in the end, tourism didn’t do too bad, either. When travel was closed to Canada and Europe, domestic travel increased.
“We saw a lot of different license plates,” Neto said.
Lee County’s tourist tax revenues were up 54 percent in August 2021, compared to August 2020, and up 64 percent from 2019. Now that the world is emerging from pandemic restrictions, there seems to be a pent-up demand for travel.
The Lee County Port Authority reported record-breaking traffic at Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) during the last six months of 2021, with year-to-date passenger travel up 71 percent compared to 2020. RSW is one of the top 50 U.S. airports for passenger traffic.
A proposed Greater Estero Virtual Information Center could direct even more tourists to Estero. The project is being spearheaded by Barry Freedman, director of membership services for the Estero Council of Community Leaders (ECCL). The idea is to put Estero businesses and attractions on a website designed by a destination-marketing company, which will use the most enhanced search-engine optimization so that whenever anyone searches online for something in the area, they’ll be directed to Estero’s virtual info center, Freedman said.
The website could be up by late spring, but Freedman said he won’t proceed unless he has the blessing of the Village.
Road Construction Ahead
To keep up with the all the development coming to Estero in the next 10 years, infrastructure will be critical. As new Village Council member Jim Ward said, “We only have one chance to make this, right?”
In mid-2021, Lee County started phase one of its project to widen Corkscrew Road to six lanes from Ben Hill Griffin Parkway to Alico Road, a distance of 4.4 miles. The $52 million project is expected to be finished in the fall of 2023.
The Village of Estero is studying bike and pedestrian safety on U.S. 41 and is planning several other roadway improvements to make traveling around town safer and less stressful. Notably, Corkscrew Road will get a 10-to-12–foot shared use path from Three Oaks Parkway to Sandy Lane, and Via Coconut Point will see roundabout improvements, bicycle and pedestrian enhancements and a new crosswalk.
Entertainment and Recreation Expanding
With all the traffic and construction, there has been some concern that Estero residents will retreat into their gated communities. When Ward spoke to an Estero Chamber gathering in March, he said, “We want to get people out of their gated communities and participating in life in Estero.”
The Florida Everblades, FGCU Athletics and the Fort Myers Mighty Mussels offer high-quality sports opportunities. And Hertz Arena draws more than a million people a year with big-name concerts and events.
Many people are hoping Lee Health will bring a cultural arts center to its yet-to-be-developed property at U.S. 41 and Coconut Road, and the Village continues to make plans for its roughly 65-acre property along the Estero River.
Recently, the Village received almost $17 million from America’s Care Act, and much of it will be used to improve sewer and septic issues affecting water quality in the river, said Estero Vice-Mayor John McLain. There are also plans to build a trail system.
“Being proper stewards of our property is our No. 1 objective,” Village Manager Steve Sarkozy said during a council workshop Dec. 1. “Our focus is providing that property for use by all of the public with walkways and a passive park.”
The Village has asked the state for $1 million to develop the Estero on the River project, which Sarkozy is hopeful Estero will get. Phase one of development will be a loop trail that’s just under a mile long. Construction is expected to begin in summer 2022.
Future plans include a pedestrian bridge over the Estero River and retail and restaurants on the north side of the river with an Olde Florida feel, McLain said.
There are other ideas for parks and recreation in Estero, too. The ECCL Culture and Recreation Committee is advocating for a veterans recognition pocket park, an arts and crafts center, public access to Larry Kiker Preserve from Corkscrew Road, a recreation trail along the unused railroad tracks, an expansion of facilities at Estero Park, new sports fields, and safe bike/pedestrian crossings over or under U.S. 41.
The Village of Estero will look for funding from Lee County’s hotel tax to build a site with 20 pickleball courts for regional tournaments, McLain said.
“We also want to make all of Estero bike and walk-friendly,” he said.