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Lehigh Acres has small-town feel

January 14, 2009
FL Guide

Situated 12 miles east of Fort Myers and about a 40-minute drive from Fort Myers Beach, Lehigh Acres, with a population of more than 80,000 people, still seems like a small community with all the amenities.

Included are beautiful parks, five golf courses, a community pool, a miniature golf course for the entire family, small restaurants, a large county recreational and community center, and an active Senior Center where visitors are welcome to go and participate in a variety of events.

One of the first places to stop on your visit to Lehigh is the Chamber of Commerce, which is located at 4109 Lee Blvd. Its professional staff of paid and volunteer workers enjoys helping people find building lots and places of interest. Lots of visitors come every day from all over the world looking for lots that were purchased 40 and 50 years ago by earlier family members and now lie waiting to be built on by those looking at retirement in this generation. Comprehensive maps for sale at the Chamber show visitors how to get around town.

Lehigh has an extensive network of freshwater canals, some connecting to the nearby Caloosahatchee. Many like to canoe throughout the canal system. To get to the river for a boat ride down the beautiful Caloosahatchee, travelers can drive north on Joel Boulevard to Alva, which is located on SR80 on the banks of the Caloosahatchee.

Alva is a quaint community where some of the first settlers of South Florida explored and originally called home. While in Alva, you can visit the town's museum, which is open on Saturdays from 2 to 4 p.m. and is staffed by historical society volunteers. It is filled with all types of relics from early Florida history and is recognized as one of the more interesting museums in Southwest Florida.

While visiting the area, don't miss a trip to the Eden Vineyards and Winery in Alva, which is just north of Lehigh. While there you can see the grapes growing in the vineyards and also get to taste the wines made on the adjoining land and from around the world.

The winery is billed as the southernmost winery in the U.S. and is located on Little Lane Road, just off SR80. It is open year-round, seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For a nominal fee, you can sample six different fine wines. Parties of 12 or more should call for reservations for the tour. The number is 239-728-9463.

For those who enjoy recreation, Lehigh offers freshwater fishing year-round from its many miles of canals, biking, tennis, walking and golf at the beautiful golf courses around the community.

History

Lehigh Acres began as a 'tax write-off' for millionaire.

Lehigh Acres has a short history. While Thomas A. Edison and his wife were spending winters in Fort Myers, there was a scattering of farm sites in the western areas of Lee County, known today as Lehigh Acres. Many families, most of them gone now, homesteaded some of the lands where today's Homestead Rd., one of the community's two main thoroughfares through town, is located. The government gave land to "homesteaders" if they promised to live and work the land.

One of the last families to have homestead land is the Flint family whose ancestors came to the area in the late 19th century. And one of the older family members who died in the early 2000s, said he remembered cow pastures in the area where Homestead Rd. is located. That was before Lee Ratner ever heard of Lee County, Florida.

Lehigh remained unpopulated largely until the 1950s when Lee Ratner of Chicago, a businessman and the owner of a large pest control company, sold his Decon business for around $7 million.

Ratner, interested in protecting that money from paying taxes to the federal government, purchased a large track of land, which had been a private ranch in Lee County, as a tax shelter. The purchase was in 1951.

Ratner planned to raise cattle on the land and paid a few workers to move from the north to the ranch and raise just enough alfalfa to feed the beef steers on what he called his "Lucky Lee Ranch." Ratner ended up buying about 100 square miles. He built a small air trip in the remote area and entertained friends who came to his ranch to hunt.

Ratner was a tall man who many found friendly and father-like and was well respected by the ranchers he hired to work on his property. But he was an astute businessman, too.

One of those earlier employees was Ratner's brother-in-law, the late Jim Richmond of Lehigh, who said a few years before his death, that as foreman, they had raised a "good crop of alfalfa" and found they had more than was needed of the crop and could sell it to nearby ranchers. Richmond said when Ratner flew into the small airstrip one weekend, he told his brother-in-law they had made money on a crop of alfalfa.

Richmond said Ratner, who rarely became angry, became upset and reminded him that he had the ranch to lose money, not to make profits. Many believe the late Lee Ratner wrote off losses to Uncle Sam during those years.

In 1954, Ratner was convinced by his friends to sell lots and build homes for retirees. He was surprised to find that people up north would come to Lehigh Acres to retire. Lehigh Acres became one of the first retiree communities in Florida.

Richmond said he remembered one night when he and Ratner and a few other men, who worked on the ranch, sat around a kitchen table drinking beers, and decided to draw up plans for streets and to name them.

Many streets in Lehigh were named for Ratner's family and his friends and others were named for the Richmond family. They have become heavily populated areas of Lehigh today. After that "street naming night," Richmond said Ratner hired a firm to plat the community into quarter-acre and half-acre lots and to finish the naming of literally hundreds of streets.

Land sales became so successful that the Lehigh Corp. was formed and a huge work force was hired, including company executives, marketing people, builders and sales people. The company marketing the community in 1954 became the County Land & Title Company Inc. It advertised Lehigh Acres all over the country and in Europe, especially Germany.

Ratner was known for rewarding those who worked hard and were loyal to him. Lehigh Acres became a "company town," with little services, if any, provided by Lee County government. That meant that the corporation paved the streets all over Lehigh.

During the late 50s and 60s, Ratner gave land to religious organizations to build churches and a Jewish temple. A large auditorium was built and celebrities from Hollywood and New York were brought to the community to entertain the residents and the people who were being paid to come to Lehigh to view building lots with sales people "dining and wining them." In 2006, the auditorium was completely renovated and became a buffet styled Asian restaurant. At one time, church services were held inside.

The corporation was sold many times over the years and the Lehigh Corp. finally ended its land dealings in the community in 1991.

Many earlier residents remember when one could come to Lehigh Acres and buy a lot for $10 down and $10 a month, an idea created by Ratner. Canals were dug to drain the town of heavy rains during the summer months. By 2006, a hundred thousand platted lots made up Lehigh Acres. Land remained inexpensive until the 2000s when a building boom began in Lehigh and prices of land and homes values began to soar. But it still remained as a more affordable place to live than in Fort Myers or Cape Coral. In 2006, a landowners association, which keeps records of the number of county permits issued to build homes, used formulas to come with up population figures. By early 2006, it was estimated that as many as 70,000 people lived in the community. Ada Thompson, who keeps count of the county permits today for the Chamber of Commerce, says Lehigh will have more than 80,000 residents by the end of 2007. Many believe that 300,000 people will live in Lehigh by the years 2020 to 2030 when it is expected that the town will be "built out."

Lehigh remained unincorporated although some in the community opted for incorporation. In the mid 1990s, a bid to incorporate the town was voted down. In 2006, the county hired a planning firm for $550,000 to come up with a comprehensive community plan. A group of local leaders began the planning process two years earlier as the Lehigh Acres Community Planning Corp., better known as the LACPCD.

Developers and investors began buying up land, but one of the problems that continued to perplex Lehigh residents was the fact that there was little room for large commercial development. Ratner had not planned for that. The main commercial areas were strewn along Lee Blvd. and Homestead Rd., and up until the 1990s, were owned by small mom and pop businesses. In the early 2000s, builders bought up land along Lee Blvd. and built model homes as they marketed their houses. And small strip malls began to spring up. In what is considered "downtown Lehigh," that area along Homestead Rd., three major shopping centers were built. One of the first, built in the 1960s at the intersection of Alabama Rd. and Leeland Heights Blvd., has been expanded into one of the busiest shopping areas in the community.

Back in the early 1960s, Lee Ratner, the original owner of the land, paid for the building of Lee Blvd. which lead to Fort Myers. It was given to the county after it was completed. In the 1990s, Commissioner John Albion and his fellow commissioners were responsible for widening that two-lane highway into a six lane major boulevard.

Some believe the highway was named for Lee Ratner while others claim it was named for Lee County. Nobody knows for sure.

Ratner's employees on the Lucky Lee Ranch built all of the first streets in Lehigh, including roads such as Alabama Rd., Leeland Heights Blvd., Joel Blvd., and Homestead Rd., with its entrances at SR 82, known as the Immokalee Rd.

Since the beginnings of Lehigh, the people became community-minded which eventually led to the formation of the Lehigh Acres Chamber of Commerce, whose members worked over the years to improve the community. Ratner early on offered land for service organizations to build on and the community became a Mecca for veterans from World Wars I and II and Korea. Today, Veterans Park, along Homestead Rd. is dedicated to those who fought in America's foreign wars. And in the late 1990s, many World War II veterans still lived in Lehigh Acres, but their number were dwindling fast.

While the community was originally planned for retirees, younger families began moving to the community and schools had to be built. The Lehigh Corp. built the first elementary school in a small house-like dwelling. Today, Lehigh Acres has several elementary schools, two middle schools, a high school and plans are on the drawing board for more schools as the community continues to grow.

Fort Myers investor and Realtor Frank D'Alessandro in 2005, said Lehigh was the fastest growing area of Lee County. He began investing in Lehigh parcels two decades before.

One of the earlier executives of Lehigh Corp., back when Lee Ratner was alive, told the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, that Ratner would never have believed the community grew as it has. And a population of 70,000 or more was something Ratner never dreamed of, he said.

In 2006, there are no statutes or memorials for Ratner and few people are alive today who even remember him. But Ratner left his mark when he found out that middle-income people would buy land in Lehigh Acres, away from the beaches, and come to the little town to live.

Even the origins of the name "Lehigh Acres" has been lost over the years. Some claim Lehigh Acres was named in honor of Lee Ratner. Others say it was named for Lee County and the fact, that Lehigh has the highest elevation of any area of Lee County, with some areas at 27 and 30 feet above sea level.

Many believe Lehigh is the safest place to be if a hurricane would hit the county. When hurricanes threaten the area from the Gulf, people flee to Lehigh Acres.

In the 2000s, Lehigh Acres was dealing with "growth problems" such as crowded streets and roads. The idea of incorporation again was raised and many believe that "cityhood" is inevitable. But still, there are those who want Lehigh to remain unincorporated. And indeed, there are many who wish Lehigh Acres was as it was in the 1960s and 1970s when there was only one stoplight in town and almost everyone knew everyone else.

 
 

 

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