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President Obama's Trip Highlights Florida's Economic Woes


President Barack Obama's visit to Florida Tuesday highlighted the plight of an area that analysts say is a prime casualty of the nation's economic troubles. The real estate collapse and mounting job losses have left many families struggling in southwestern Florida.

Residents of Lehigh Acres say few towns in America are in greater need of economic assistance than their Florida community.

The construction and home-building boom that helped the town grow for years, has gone bust. Scores of construction workers and related employees are without jobs, and many homes sit vacant or unfinished. The mounting troubles have led to a record number of home foreclosures. Last year, 12 percent of homes in the region receive foreclosure notices.

Local officials say the troubles have forced more and more families to seek public assistance. Charlotte Rae Nicely directs Lehigh Community Services, which offers food aid and financial counseling.

"In the last six months, I have seen more of the middle class family come in. I have seen men around 35-40 years old, coming in and asking for help. And they never had to ask for assistance before," Nicely said.

As in many communities, local officials have drafted a list of stimulus measures they would like to implement with federal assistance. Their ideas focus mainly on generating construction jobs - repairing roads and water lines - and finishing work on abandoned homes.

Nicely says she and other local officials hope the list will make into the president's hands during his trip to the nearby city of Fort Myers.

"We all know he is coming to talk about his stimulus plan and to try to get it passed," she says. "But we might get some of the fallout from that, and great if we do."

For Lehigh Acres residents, one key part of the economic stimulus bill being debated in Washington is what will be done for homeowners with costly mortgages.

Wilma Mauren and her husband run the Chuck Wagon greeting service, which welcomes new families when they move into town. She says they know many of the families in Lehigh Acres and that some homeowners are forced to keep paying on mortgages that are worth more than the value of their houses.

"They are maybe paying minimum, some people are paying nothing. But they don't know what is going to happen either. We have a lot of nervous people, a lot of stress," Mauren said.

In spite of the problems, Mauren says people are still coming to Lehigh Acres. She says the number of people moving in began to surge in November, as families sought to take advantage of bargain real estate prices. The problem, she says, is that very few people are finding work near their new homes.

"Some of them do find them [jobs]. If they have to travel, they have to be out of town for weeks at a time to go to another state. It is just destroying people's lives," she said.

Wilma Mauren and her husband Chuck say they do not expect the economic stimulus package being considered in Washington will help fix the real estate problems in Lehigh Acres. They say a tax cut might boost consumer spending and revive the economy. But with so many people losing their jobs, they say there is less money for many families to spend even on the basic necessities.

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