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Pioneering businesses faced struggles

August 14, 2015
By CHUCK BALLARO ( , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

Elmer Tabor knows better than anyone how difficult it is to start a business. After all, it was his father that started the first grocery store in Cape Coral when all of 13 families lived there.

Thus was the life for the early pioneers of Cape Coral who went through the growing pains of a small city that has now become the largest city between Tampa and Miami and growing by the day.

Tabor moved with his father to Cape Coral in 1960 after his grandfather, Andy Anderson, had moved to Fort Myers Beach to retire three years earlier.

Article Photos

?The Cape Coral Shopping Plaza featuring Elmer’s Supermarket.

Anderson asked Tabor's father to pack up the kids and open a grocery store in Cape Coral, due to his knowledge of having a business in West Virginia for many years.

Tabor said that was possibly by design as the people who started the city got into Anderson's ear.

"The Rosen Brothers were land developers who didn't care to get involved with businesses, but were brilliant people. They went and found people that were in business or knew somebody in business to try to get them to come here to open up a business," Tabor said. "It was people like my grandfather who were outside people who helped bring business there.

Thus Elmer's Supermarket was born, which would remain in business until 1966 before a change of ownership and location to the Big John Shopping Center, which Anderson also helped to open to bring in more business, where it remained open until 1987.

Tabor said to attract people to do business there, the Rosens started subsidy plans to bring in doctors, for example. They would pay his salary to get him to come to Cape Coral until it had enough of a population to make it on its own.

That included the Tabors, though Elmer didn't realize it until last year.

"They were cleaning files out at the Yacht Club. When we went through the boxes we found one for Elmer's Supermarket," Tabor said. "They agreed to subsidize him for $2.50 per family per month under 300 families. When there were 300 families, he was no longer subsidized."

Cape Coral continues to do business that way even today, only now it's with Starbucks and Sam's Club, Tabor said.

Meanwhile, Anderson started Cape Coral Bank, which he opened with Lowell Mills in 1964, and Wonderland Realty, which was never subsidized as it was considered a competitor. Tabor is now president of Wonderland and is the oldest business in the city.

One of the challenges Cape Coral businesses had to overcome in the early days (and even today to a lesser extent) was the notion residents had to go to Fort Myers to purchase many of their items.

People would drive the seven-mile road (now Del Prado Boulevard) to Pine Island Road to Old 41 and cross the river there.

The opening of the Cape Coral Bridge in 1964 made it easier for people to choose where they wanted to buy groceries and get to Fort Myers.

A mixed blessing, Tabor said.

"If you needed a pair of shoes, you had to go to Fort Myers to get them and it was a long drive to do that. We were trained to go to Fort Myers for all our goods and services," Tabor said. "Now, we're getting those stores so we don't have to go to Fort Myers."

That mindset made it very difficult for businesses to survive. Many of the early settlers opened multiple businesses. Don Graf, who would later become mayor of Cape Coral, owned a rental car company, a taxi cab and a dry cleaner.

"There was a high divorce rate because you had to struggle every day, in business and in life," Tabor said. "If you wanted entertainment, what did you do? Watch them dig a canal?"

But Cape Coral grew quickly, as a 1961 phone book of the city (found on the city website) can attest to, featuring 10 pages of businesses from bait shops to putt-putt golf.

Bill Smith Appliances came in early, as did Dairy Queen. Fred Denton opened the first men's shop to go along with Sun & Surf for the ladies. Dale Regnier had the first gas station and auto repair center.

The Nautilus Motel, Tolles Seawall and the Surfside Restaurant were also pioneering businesses, as were Roberts Pharmacy, Carriage Cleaners, and a newspaper published by R.G. Crawford called the Cape Coral Breeze.

Most of the businesses were on Cape Coral Parkway. As the Cape expanded north and west, businesses moved up Del Prado, including the construction of the Coralwood Mall in 1977.

Ken Schuman came from Ohio in 1972 and started an auto electric business on Del Prado, and for eight years rebuilt starters and alternators before becoming Ken's Auto Repair, a full-service repair shop, in 1983, making his shop among the oldest businesses in the city.

Schuman remembered when he started, there was still very little outside of downtown.

"You could stand and look out the back of our shop and see the sailboats on the river. There was nothing. The population was about 10,000 at the time," Schuman said. "It's a world of difference. Cars were easier to work on back then, and the key to staying in business is to keep up with the changing trends."

Schuman did his homework, realizing there were no true auto electric shops in the city. Many of the garages had the lifts and gas pumps where workers would fill your tank (those are all convenience stores now), but only dabbled in electric.

"You could come to Cape Coral and find your niche in business and be successful. I was a department manager at Sears, but I looked around and found out what they needed and that's the direction I went," Schuman said. "There was a need for everything."

He also learned to multitask, selling and repairing boats as well as opening an insurance agency in 1986 that his oldest daughter runs today.

"That's how you get five kids through college, you diversify," Schuman said.

Robert Greco of ACRA Electric opened his business in 1975 and has been able to grow parallel along with it. He said that when the business started, there was a slowdown and larger companies went out of business.

"We started out of our house and built our building downtown in 1976. My brother would come to the shop after school and work," Greco said. "Houses were much simpler back then."

Builders have come and gone, but ACRA has been able to persevere by building relationships as the city grew.

"We give back to the community, get involved in community activities. My dad, myself and my brother were president of the CCCIA," Greco said. "You make sure you do the job right because it comes back to you."

As the city has grown, things have gotten more complicated. Permits go out much slower, homes are more sophisticated and better able to withstand hurricanes.

Donald Hinks of Hinks & Associates, a land developer, has seen a lot since starting business in 1986. For one, there was very little business in the city. Also, it didn't enjoy a good reputation.

"I found it to be a water paradise because of all the canals. The Fort Myers Realtors laughed at me and called it 'Cape Corral,'" Hinks said. "Now, a lot of those Realtors are working in the Cape."

Tabor and many others said the future of business looks great for Cape Coral. The city's population of 160,000 is expected to become 400,000 at buildout, meaning lots of growth ahead of it.

"You can be anything you want to be because there's so much blank canvas out there. You have the opportunity for growth," Tabor said. "My son-in-law said, 'We don't need to drive to Fort Myers. We need to build Cape Coral,' and he's right. You can be a Cape Coral business and not have to cross that bridge."

"It's been a fantastic journey to be a part of the growth of the city over all these years. We hope to keep doing it," Greco said.



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