Obama Pushes Stimulus Plan In Florida

Cape Coral, Florida is home of the highest foreclosure rate in the country. President Barack Obama pitches his stimulus in nearby Fort Myers today. Mike Quaintance, president of the Cape Coral Chamber of Commerce, talks about what the economic situation in Cape Coral looks like and why Obama picked that area to pitch his stimulus package.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, the recession trickledown continues. State budget cuts mean less money for kids with autism. But first, President Obama kept up the pressure for congressional action on the economy during his visit today to Fort Myers, Florida.

(Soundbite of speech, February 10, 2009)

President BARACK OBAMA: We can't wait and see and hope for the best. I believe in hope, but I also believe in action.

BRAND: The president is in Fort Myers because it had the highest foreclosure rate in the nation last year. The median home price there fell from its peak of $322,000 three years ago to its current price, $107,000. The unemployment rate is around 10 percent. Next door, in Cape Coral, things aren't any better. Mike Quaintance is the president of Cape Coral's Chamber of Commerce. And if you would, take us back four years. Cape Coral was living pretty large, living the high life. What was happening in the real-estate market?

Mr. MIKE QUAINTANCE (President, Cape Coral Chamber of Commerce): Well, we were experiencing a huge boom due to everybody interested in getting a piece of the retirement dream. We are a destination for retirees, and we've got over 300 miles of canals that go behind the residential units that are here. We have more canals than Venice, Italy. We were riding high.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: And then what happened?

Mr. QUAINTANCE: Well, then the next thing that happened is that, you know, we started seeing a softening of the market. We - as you stated earlier, our median price has dropped down substantially. And we had a very big lull here for awhile. Cape Coral is kind of a bedroom community, and its major industry is building homes. We went from permitting about 8500 single-family homes in a 12-month period to probably less than 200 this year. So, for us, that was a significant impact.

BRAND: Well, describe what it looks like. I mean, you initially describe Cape Coral as a paradise for people, with the sun and the water and the canals. What does it look like now as you drive down the streets?

Mr. QUAINTANCE: Well, there is a lot of for-sale signs in front of homes, and there's some, you know, homes that have grass that's way too long, but the really cool part is things that we're seeing now is that folks that have squirreled away money or maybe taken money out of the stock market are starting to come back in droves, and we've had three and four times the sales volume on a monthly basis on our re-sales here in the past six months. And so, we believe we're starting to see some signs of improvement. We really...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUAINTANCE: I think we're all ready to turn the corner, so to speak.

BRAND: Have you seen a lot of people move out in the last couple of years?

Mr. QUAINTANCE: Well, anybody that was pretty much related to the building industry probably has relocated to either Texas, Louisiana or Mississippi, because there's still activity there, you know, rebuilding after the storms and stuff. So, yes, we've seen a lot of our subcontractors and related industries, those people moved to other areas of the country in order to find work.

BRAND: And you said it's a retirement community; what about the retirees? How are they faring?

Mr. QUAINTANCE: They are not doing bad at all. I mean, unless they were heavily leveraged in the stock market, most of them are doing fairly well. I happen to serve on a board of directors for a retirement community here. While they are worried about outliving their money, they've done a pretty good job of protectionism for their assets and stuff.

BRAND: So, you say things are starting to turn around and people are starting to buy houses, but they're still not buying houses at prices that you saw a few years ago.

Mr. QUAINTANCE: Oh, absolutely not. No, that's - the real-estate agents will tell you that they're working harder for a lot less because they've seen their commissions diminish and stuff like that, plus the challenges of dealing with foreclosures and short sales, which, three or four years ago, nobody in our community knew what a short sale was. So, it's been an eye-opening experience for all of our industry segments here.

BRAND: So, what is your pitch to people who, you know, that you want people to come to Cape Coral? What do you say to them?

Mr. QUAINTANCE: Little piece of paradise that's never been this inexpensive before...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUAINTANCE: It's really - I mean, it's - I came here back in 1993, and the prices that were starting - or that we've seen are actually rivaling what was going on then. If you want sunshine and you want water and you want a quality of life at a very, very, very reasonable and affordable price, now is the time, if you've got the wherewithal to do it. I think one of the things that we hope is that the president's plans and some of the banking dollars actually find their way down here to help stimulate the housing market even more.

BRAND: Mike Quaintance is the president of Cape Coral's Chamber of Commerce. Thank you very much.

Mr. QUAINTANCE: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Stay with us. NPR's Day to Day continues.

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