Lehigh Acres tops nationwide list of fastest-growing 'cities'

Laura Layden The News-Press

Three of America's fastest growing "cities" are in Lee County.

One of them stands at No. 1 — Lehigh Acres. 

OK, Lehigh Acres isn't technically a city.

However, it is a census-designated place, making it eligible to compete for a spot on WalletHub's annual list. The personal finance website, which has done its annual growth-focused city survey since 2014, also ranked nearby Fort Myers at No. 6 and neighboring Cape Coral at No. 9 on its latest list.

For the rankings, WalletHub compared 515 cities with varying population sizes based on 17 key metrics, from population growth to unemployment, over seven years.

While the Naples area has seen a lot of growth, it's not included in the report, due to "sample size," said Diana Polk, WalletHub's communications manager, in an email.

So what makes Lehigh Acres and two cities in Lee County stand out from the crowd for 2019? Several factors, said WalletHub analyst Jill Gonzalez in an email.

"These areas stand out particularly in terms of population growth. Lehigh Acres' population, for example, has an almost 5% growth rate, one of the highest in the country," she said. Other factors landing the three areas in the top 10? "A strong increase in the number of businesses, at just above 3%, and a large growth in the number of technology companies, 4.6%," Gonzalez said.

Wait — there's more.

"These areas are also seeing a lot of growth in the median house prices, over 10% in Cape Coral, and almost 15% in Lehigh Acres and Fort Myers," Gonzalez said.

What does it mean to rank at or near the top of the list? 

"The areas that top the rankings have some of the most rapidly growing local economies," Gonzalez said. "This means that they are able to attract new businesses, and sustain a growth in their population size.This is typically possible with good infrastructure and public transportation, affordable housing options, schools, parks and other amenities."

No surprise

The fact that Lehigh Acres topped the list as the fastest-growing area in the country didn't come as a surprise to Greater Lehigh Acres Board Chairman Michael Welch, who questioned whether it's really news.

The community, he said, has been growing and developing at a rapid rate for more than five years, for many reasons including well-planned road improvements.

"With WalletHub they are only talking about what I've known has been going on for a long time," Welch said.

In other words, the area has come a long way since the Great Recession, when it became a poster child for the foreclosure crisis.

With an estimated population of 120,000, Lehigh has become a cavalcade of cultures, Welch said, which includes Latinos, African Americans and Europeans, mainly from Germany.

While home prices have been on the rise in the community, he said, they're still much more affordable than in many other areas of Lee County and Southwest Florida, making it an especially attractive place for young, working-class families, as well as retirees.

Welch described Lehigh as a "beautiful hometown community." "I have not regretted moving here at all," he said.

With all the growth in Lehigh comes challenges. One of the big ones? There's only a 3% vacancy rate for commercial space, Welch said, which could stunt future growth. However, he said, there's some good news on that front.

The widening of State Road 82, which includes a first-of-a-kind continuous flow intersection at Daniels Parkway and Gunnery Road, is generating new interest in commercial development in the community.

"That whole area already is starting to percolate with good retail, good light industrial and other development there that frankly is gluing up, attaching Lehigh and Gateway into a great relationship," Welch said.  

Katy Hoover, a small business owner who serves as vice-chairwoman for Lehigh's chamber, said improvements to State Road 82 and other arterial roads are definitely making a big difference for the many residents who commute to jobs in Fort Myers and Naples.

She also noted that job opportunities are growing in Lehigh itself — and she expects that trend to continue. Family Health Centers of Southwest Florida is building a new headquarters, for example, to expand its health care services for needy patients, which will create dozens of new jobs.

Like Welch, Hoover said she wasn't surprised to see Lehigh rise to the top of WalletHub's list for its growth. 

"Really after that depression happened, people just started coming here in droves and buying up the foreclosed homes. It's just really, really boomed since 2012," she said. 

Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann, whose district includes Lehigh Acres, said the area is still "one of the best kept secrets" in the county, despite its growth.

"It is a vibrant community, even though it's not a city," he said. "The building permits, especially for residential housing, are flying off the shelves here at the courthouse for new construction in Lehigh."

The county, he said, has made big investments in Lehigh's 1,500 miles of roads, including spending more than $5 million a year mostly on road resurfacing over the past three years.

"We've made a major effort to bring them up to standards that are presentable and acceptable," Mann said.

Not a first

This is the fourth year that Lehigh has ranked among WalletHub's Top 10 fastest-growing cities — and it's the third year for Fort Myers.

The methodology has been updated each year, however, so no apples-to-apples comparisons can be made between reports, said Gonzalez, with WalletHub.

In the rankings this year, she said, population growth, job growth and growth in regional gross domestic product, or GDP, per person had double the weight. 

Colleen DePasquale, president & CEO of the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce, said her area's growth is evident in the chamber's growing membership, which is also becoming much more diverse.

The chamber's newer members include everything from CBD oil shops to nationally-known restaurants, such as Mellow Mushroom.

Another new member? Kitchen Social, a local concept offering fun, hands-on cooking classes, which DePasquale raves about. 

DePasquale points out that 80% of the businesses operating in the Fort Myers area can be considered small businesses.

"We've got some great entrepreneurs and it's exciting news," she said.

National concepts are showing more interest in the Fort Myers area too, with the promise of bringing in new forms of entertainment. Topgolf is bringing its high-tech golf experience to a location off Colonial Boulevard and Interstate 75 in Fort Myers — and Tiger Woods and PopStroke Entertainment Group recently confirmed plans to build a competing venture in the area.

"There are some new things coming in," DePasquale said. "The next year to year-and-a-half are going to be pretty exciting around here."  

As for Cape Coral, it's one of the largest cities in Florida, with a steadily growing population of about 200,000. The city, offering more affordable housing and a lower cost of living than many other areas of Southwest Florida, continues to draw new residents and businesses, including corporate headquarters.

With a projected future population of more than 400,000, the city is only 47% built out, leaving plenty of room for growth, according to the city's economic development office.

In 2018, Forbes magazine ranked Cape Coral and the surrounding area among the top 10 fastest-growing cities in the nation for jobs and population. In 2017, it took first place on the annual list.

“At more than 200,000 residents at only 50% development, we can no longer look at ourselves as the ‘bedroom’ community of the past," said Donna Germain, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Cape Coral. "Currently, Cape Coral is roughly 92% residential and 8% commercial. We will need to see a swing in those numbers as we continue to grow."

New business development, business retention, job development, attainable housing and infrastructure, she said, will all be important factors in the future growth of the city.

At the national level, Florida, Texas and the Carolinas are home to many of America's fastest-growing cities.

These cities are bucking the trend of slower population growth nationally, in large part due to the relocation of retirees.

Fastest-Growing Cities in America  

1. Lehigh Acres, Florida 

2. Mount Pleasant, South Carolina

3. Bend, Oregon

4. Enterprise, Nevada  

5. Frisco, Texas

6. Fort Myers, Florida 

7. Meridian, Idaho

8. St. George, Utah 

9. Cape Coral, Florida

10. Round Rock, Texas

Source: WalletHub, 2019.

The new Family Health Center, a 60,000 square foot building located on Lee Boulevard.