In Collier, Lee and Charlotte counties, a single month of construction permits in 2023 can surpass the number they once saw in just one year.

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Looking for a job? Well-paying? With no sitting around office cubicles but plenty of benefits? There won’t be much time to rest, though. You’ll work a 40-hour week, minimum, and a lot of people won’t be happy if you fall short of 80 hours. Or 90.

One word: construction.

A year after Hurricane Ian barreled into the southwest coast in 2022, building permits alone suggest how much work has to be done in the coastal counties of Collier, Lee and Charlotte, says Donna Barrett, CEO of the Charlotte-DeSoto County Building Industry Association, the region’s largest, the fourth largest in the state, and the 68th largest in the country.

She demonstrates what she means not by comparing numbers immediately pre-Ian to numbers post-Ian, but by comparing numbers post 2020 COVID and after Ian, to numbers 13 years ago in an economy then bludgeoned into recession and near depression.

“In fiscal year 2009-2010, Charlotte County pulled 232 single-family home permits for the whole year,” she reports.

“This year in June alone, they pulled 289 permits.”

It’s a lot, but there’s a lot more than that.

In Charlotte County, every single property was damaged by Ian in some way, even if it was little more than a flattened mailbox, she says. A lot of the restoration requires permits (not mailboxes, though).

It’s like that in Collier and Lee as well, where permits issued for single-family home construction can be added to all the other permits, commercial or residential, all of it a response to insistent new post-Ian need that creates high demands on city and county governments whose staffs must approve or deny permits.

And it hands hugely challenging workloads to the construction industry, while putting urgent demands on industries that supply contractors.

In Collier County in July, for example, the county issued 4,649 permits between the first and last day of the month for work that included plumbing, electrical, solar, marine, carports, garages and sheds, guest rooms, guest houses, single and multifamily homes, shutters and doors, windows, fire alarms and more.

In unincorporated Lee, where demolition also requires permits (an exceptionally popular permit need in the last 12 months), along with work on docks and shorelines, mobile homes and others, officials issued 216 commercial building permits last month, along with 1,427 residential permits, 124 permits for demolition, and 1,441 permits for roofs.

Sanibel, Fort Myers Beach, Cape Coral and Fort Myers for miles along the Caloosahatchee River all were decimated, likely doubling the unincorporated numbers.

Doubling the number of jobs, however, does not mean doubling the number of workers.

For the men or women who lead crews that do that work, the extra demands only add to already longstanding problems in the industry finding enough proficient employees. Even when the pay is high (in the first six or eight weeks after workers could reach Sanibel by boat, and later motor vehicle, for example, the going rate for members of cleanup crews was $75 an hour).

“We lost two generations of people coming into this industry during the recession,” Barrett explains. “So back in 2009, if you had a child going into the workforce, you wouldn’t want them to follow you into your trade, because the shovel was not hitting the ground. We lost a generation of people who would normally come into our profession. We’re trying to build it back up.”

Kevin Shimp, president of Thomas Marine Construction, a Lee County based company that works for the FDOT and the South Florida Water Management District building or repairing bridges across south Florida, reports the company has a historic high number of openings: five of the 32 positions usually filled.

“It’s fluctuated between three and five since 2020, and Ian didn’t materially change that,” he acknowledged. “But we had several key people we had to support because their homes flooded, and we sent entire bridge crews to their house to do construction.”

Sounds like a company you’d want to work for, and people do. But they have to know what they’re doing.

The open positions vary from heavy equipment operators to skilled concrete and carpentry positions – basic structural jobs, Shimp said. And they pay from a starting salary of $60,000 into the six figures.

The cleanup has mostly happened, in his estimation. The rebuilding, the construction, is slower.

“If you were going to rebuild all those three- and four-story buildings at the same time, you’d have a bigger problem. But that has not been happening,” he points out. “You have a lot of people trying to take a breath and trying to rebuild, but the real demand on construction is not an Ian problem.”

It’s a population problem, with 1,200 people arriving in Florida as new residents each day, on average, and something on the order of 1,900 moving into Lee County alone each month, hurricanes or no hurricanes, demographers say.

Where are they all going to live? Expensive as renting is, apartments are popular. An online trade group, Rent Café, says that in the Fort Myers-Cape Coral metro area alone, all the new construction includes 1,413 rentals to be completed by the end of this year, 90% of them in Fort Myers, part of a “pandemic building boom” that saw 6,500 new apartments open between 2020 and last year, more than 5,000 of those in Fort Myers.

It’s an opportunity for construction workers – there will be work for a long time – but it’s a hassle for government workers trying hard to move along the permitting process, he figures.

Local governments “are making a lot of effort to get permitting sped up,” Shimp concludes. “In COVID, we slowed way down, we sent government workers home, and all those departments atrophied.”

But they’re back now.

The coastal counties all have added staffers, and in hardest-hit Lee, it’s a lot in a little time.

“The board of county commissioners approved 23 positions Aug. 1, and in February, the board also authorized a mid-year budget adjustment to hire 11 new positions to address permitting demands amplified by recovery following Hurricane Ian,” said the county’s spokeswoman, Betsy Clayton. “Most of those positions are filled.”

On the whole, rebuilding and reconstruction is only a good thing in the long run, as the face of the region changes, suggests Bill Varian, president of Varian Construction, based in Naples. The state’s building codes are both stringent and very good now, he says, creating a resilience that could save both money and grief as the century progresses and the climate grows more prickly, challenging structures, especially those near water.

Ten years after Hurricane Andrew, the devastating 1992 storm with winds reaching 174 mph, the Florida Legislature finally passed a Florida building code designed to put resilience into any structures newly built. It wasn’t perfect, so the state kept updating it and tightening it about every three years, Varian says.

“We are on our sixth edition of that code since its inception, and as builders we have adapted to that code and are making a stronger structure,” he says, describing the work he does mostly in Collier and Lee counties.

And now builders and property owners have to choose one of two options, based on the FEMA 50% rule for anything in a flood plain, he explains: “If structure has more than 50% damage everything must be all brought up to the current codes, everything, including floor codes.”

And that means new, sometimes much higher floors.

“If it’s less than 50%, we can rebuild what they had. A good percentage of homes on Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel and Captiva will probably have to be rebuilt (not just restored).”

Construction companies like Varian are now in the business of giving the region a 21st-century look.

“In the buildings themselves, in windows impact rated or with shutters, the electrical codes, the plumbing codes – for us, now it’s just another day of business. We’ve been working with these codes, we’re familiar with them. There are upgrades that may take more work, but that’s part of our normal process.”

The challenges or issues builders face, however, can slow them down significantly, which is why the pace of change or renewal is not fast enough for some people.

“It’s in materials,” Varian explains.

Especially in condominiums – the electrical panels and transformers, the electrical components, for example. There’s a shortage of those, and that’s slowing down reconstruction of some condominium buildings.

“And we had a very bad issue with interior doors and trim. In homes with two feet or 18 inches of water, all the interior doors had to be removed. So, for six or eight months, it was a problem. Exterior windows and sliding doors – those are still seven or eight weeks out.”

The road to the future is bumpy, in other words, but construction workers are getting us there as fast as they can.

“We’ve had so many heroes come into the Building Industry Association that just keep plugging away,” says Barrett. “Some people haven’t taken a day off since the storm. They’re exhausting themselves trying to take care of every single thing.” ¦

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