THE ECONOMY: Life becomes difficult

THE ECONOMY: Life becomes difficult
By Dick Hogan
Originally posted on September 02, 2007

People who work for a living are feeling the pain — especially those in the construction trades who find themselves unable to make close to what they did during the boom.

“Many of the people being laid off aren’t the highly skilled people,” said Barbara Hartman, spokeswoman for the Career and Service Centers of Southwest Florida-Lee County. “Their wage levels are much higher than the occupations available to them now. Not only are they having a decrease, they’re having to learn a new occupation.”

Dolores Taylor, the former mortgage underwriter, has experienced that first-hand, and said a history of making good money is no help in the search for a new job.

“I can’t even get a basic cashier job, things are so bad,” she said. “I have 15 years’ mortgage experience. When they look at my resume, they basically say, ‘What are you doing here? You’re overqualified to be an $8-an-hour cashier.’”

Here’s what others are saying:


Mark Simone describes himself as “more of a glass-half-full guy.”

That’s why the owner of Sandpiper Plumbing decided to stick it out in Cape Coral even as work evaporates and mass layoffs by contractors create waves of cheap competition.

He sees others in the construction trades “packing up and leaving the state” but has chosen to stay and deal with the new economy.

“We’re small enough, we’re flexible, we can change and adapt without a lot of interoffice bureaucracy,” Simone said. “For instance, one thing we’ve done is we’ve also gone out and gotten our handyman license since handymen are taking so much work away from us.”

Now, he said, “When I’m in a customer’s home, I can say, ‘Well, what else do you need?’” in the way of minor repairs.

Simone moved his family to Cape Coral about four years ago from New Jersey, where he also was a plumber.

He didn’t see hard times coming.

They came down in part to find a healthier environment for their children, “but another factor was the area was still growing. I thought it would be the land of milk and honey.”

Mary Ann & Rocky smith

Mary Ann and Rocky Smith can see the signs there’s a slowdown in Lee County’s real estate market.

For the past two years they’ve been owners of Sign-A-Rama in Bonita Springs, a franchise sign company.

Signs for real estate agents are staple of their business.

“We’ve noticed there’s been a decline in our sales orders — they’re listing a lot but not selling a lot,” Mary Ann Smith said.

She’s also seen a slowdown in business from construction companies and even clients not related directly to real estate.

“Restaurant owners are complaining it’s slow,” Mary Ann said.

One area that’s looking up is new businesses, Smith said.

“New businesses are very helpful. We can supply them with everything from banners to business cards” plus logo design work for the true newcomer, she said.

Coconut Point Town Center in Estero, still a work in progress, is a rich source of new clients.

“That’s something that’s been steady in this area,” Mary Ann said.
But, Smith said, conditions are generally slow for businesses in Bonita.


Christina Torres was a drywall installer and faux painter for 30 years, making good money in Southwest Florida and around the country.

Now, she said, “I’m trying to brush off my GED, trying to get a teacher’s assistant job. I really need to reinvent myself.”

Torres, 55, said she had been making $18 an hour, but the teaching job would pay $10.

“I haven’t been making 10 dollars an hour for 30 years,” she said.

The job, even if she gets it, will not pay all her living expenses.

“I’ve got $2,300 a month in bills,” she said. “I’m going to have to work two jobs.”

It doesn’t help that insurance on Torres’ North Fort Myers home has gone up $500 a month since she bought it in 2003.

She likes Southwest Florida, but isn’t sure it’s in the cards for her to stay here.

“Everything’s so expensive here, the housing’s so bleak here,” she said. “It’s only made for the rich.”

Torres is considering getting out of Florida, maybe even leaving the country.

“In Tijuana,” she said, “you can buy a house for $25,000. You can pay people $10 a day to clean your house.”

The situation isn’t likely to turn around soon, she predicted.

“I can feel the recession,” she said, “and it’s going to get worse.”


Jim Rose used to spiff up his 16 rental apartments as fast as he could in order to get them leased out again.

Now Rose, 65, doesn’t worry so much about getting a unit back on the market — it’s likely to take a while to get it leased out.

“I’m sure not in a hurry to refurbish,” he said.

From his vantage point as landlord, he sees what’s happening: a mass exodus of the construction tradesmen and others who rented his $500-a-month efficiencies in Cape Coral.

“In the last three months I’ve lost three tenants,” Rose said. “It wasn’t like the lease was up and they left. They just left. One wrote me a letter; the other two just disappeared.”

It doesn’t help, he said, so many newly-built houses in Cape Coral are on the rental market at fire sale prices.

“There are people desperate to rent their house because they can’t sell it,” he said. “I can rent a three-bedroom house for $650.”

Hard times are here now, Rose said.

“It just finally dawned on me a month ago, man: We’re in a fix here,” he said. “If it’s not a recession, I don’t know what the hell it is.”


Amanda Marquez of Lehigh Acres was laid off from her job with a title company in April 2006 and started doing the math — it turned out she could make it on her own in the same business by closing as few as two or three deals a month.

“Even with the market going down, I’d be OK,” she figured.

After a few months the situation was still tough for her company, New Generation Title.

“I refinanced my house in December 2006, thinking if I can just get past this hump, it’s coming back around. Here I am in August, saying it’s time to cut the strings and say it’s not going to work.”

The problem, Marquez said, was “all the contacts I had established left the market when it got scary. Every contact I thought I could draw business from was gone.”

Now Marquez, 25, is seven months pregnant and working for Tax Prep in Cape Coral although she’s also keeping her title company open in case work comes along.

“Should I have seen it coming?” she said. “Yes, I guess I should have. I guess there was a bit of hopefulness.”


Donna Tomassoni of Lehigh Acres got back from vacation three months ago with a funny feeling she might not have her job as an office manager much longer.

She was right.

“When I came back, I said, ‘Do I still have a job?’ They said ‘We’ll have to talk about it,’” Tomassoni said.

Firm Foundation Group, the small real estate company where she worked, was doing a lot less business, Tomassoni said. “They have several properties sitting empty.”

She decided to strike out in a different direction, using her talents to best effect by starting a new business, Organized by Grace.

“I love to get organized,” she said. “When the hard drive crashed, I had to go and get all that organized for tax season. I guess I enjoy doing that.”

So, Tomassoni said, she’s carving out a niche as someone who organizes for a living.

“I’m trying to make contact with real estate brokers: someone’s selling their house and it’s cluttered, I’ll come and de-clutter it so it’s presentable to prospective buyers,” she said. “I know the work is out there. I just have to get the word out.”

Now she’s not making as much money but is a lot happier.

“I guess I just enjoy doing that,” she said.