LEHIGH ACRES

LEHIGH ACRES

By Duncan

“I’m interested in your listing in Lehigh Acres.”

She went through the listing telling me everything I wanted to know, except why is the price so low. So, one has got to ask, right? She answered my question with a question,

“Are you aware of or know about Lehigh Acres?”

“All I know about Southwest Florida is what’s on this listing sheet. I’m calling from Indianapolis.” I told her.

“What do I need to know? Help me to make an informed decision.”

She wanted to know where I was coming from, how long before I needed a home, what was my purchase price point? We talked for quite a while and then she did something Realtors are not supposed to do. She started steering me. Steering is when a salesperson tries to move you in a different direction. They want you to buy something else other than what you called for and wanted to buy. This is a poor example but, let’s say a waitress will suggest a higher priced meal than a lower one. Or she may push dessert. That increases the bill and affords the waitress a larger tip. In the case of a Realtor, it’s against the law to steer. So, I listened to what had to say with caution.

It seems she has only one listing in Lehigh Acres. She told me she doesn’t usually work the Lehigh Acres area. I really don’t think this home is for you. The seller has been trying to sell this property for quite a while. He’s had 3 buyers in the past few months. And each time we get ready to close the transaction, the house is vandalized, and the thieves steal the appliances and the air conditioning along with the copper pipes. The buyers make their final inspection the morning before closing and see the house has been burglarized and has been broken into and get cold feet. This, of course, gives “pause” to a family thinking this was going to be their dream home.

“Three closings in a row?” I asked.

She confirmed that was the case.

“Why not put a guard on the property?”

“Do you want to buy this home and hire a guard to protect your home 24 hours a day, 7 days a week?”

It’s not uncommon for people to go to work who live in Lehigh Acres to come back home and find their air conditioning and copper pipes stolen. She then further explained, if you’re going to buy a home in Southwest Florida here is a couple of simple rules to follow. There are two main north-south roads in Southwest, Florida. US 41 and Interstate 75. You want to buy as close to the water as you can afford. So, try and stay on the west side of US 41 and as close to the Gulf of Mexico as you can. Or stay in between U.S. 41 and I–75. But under no circumstances do you want to be way east of Interstate 75. I looked at the map and realized where Lehigh Acres was and what she is saying.

I didn’t ask her many questions after that. I didn’t have another listing I was interested in at that moment. So we ended the phone call. Well, that was interesting. How did this Lehigh Acres get to be like this? What’s the story behind Lehigh Acres? Is there a back story?

INFOMATION CENTER

THE HISTORY OF LEHIGH ACRES

As you will discover later in this article, the name “Lehigh Acres” was batted around by several people to see how the name would play to the folks up north. Some believe the name came about because the property is in Lee County, Florida. The HIGH part because the property is the highest point in Lee County, 27–30 feet above sea level. The “Acres” in the name gives the impression or feeling there is a generous amount of ground with your land purchase. The name Lee High Acres then became “Lee Heights / Lehigh Acres.” Another claim is it was named in honor of Lee Ratner. While another offering for the name is the notion Lehigh is the safest place to be if Lee County was hit by a hurricane. You decide. Then the third opinion for naming rights is it was named after Lee Ratner. Leonard “Lee” Ratner. I happen to believe that Leonard “Lee” Ratner wanted “HIS” name on things he owned.

Let me list a few of the characters in this plot that is going to build a community called Lehigh Acres. The star of this show and the main character is, known as Leonard Lee Ratner. A strong supporting cast is needed but none more important than Gerald (Gerry) H Gould, better known by many as Gerry Gould. Other actors in the story come later and play minor parts in the story but are just as important.

Our main character in this story was born on the west side of Chicago. (1918) To be polite, he was a Chicago hustler. He began his selling career young by watching his father and keeping his eyes and ears open. Ratner did more listening than talking. He knew the streets. He knew everybody on the south side, and everybody knew him. One of the legendary stories that is told is Ratner at age 17 “gets wind” of a truckload of bananas that are about to go bad. Quickly, He makes his way over a couple of blocks and finds the driver parked in an alley. The driver has his head on the steering wheel. Ratner taps on the driver’s window. The driver is in a jam and has no place to lay off his load. Ratner pulls the tarp back and looks at the fruit. He tells the driver; I’ll give you $250.00 right now. The driver balks at the price. “No way!” Ratner smiles and slowly slides a hand full of bills out of his pocket and palms the cash money to show the driver he means business. Ratner pushes the money back in his pocket. “Look, you need to dump this load somewhere, I can solve your problem and make your problem my problem. It’s now or never. You can go back to your boss with a rotten load of produce and tell your boss you couldn’t think on your feet or you can show him you got a least 250 out of a rotting load of bananas. You want to keep your job, don’t you?” By the end of the day, Ratner has sold the bananas to other grocers, and fruit stands for $1,750.

Ratner graduated from Marshall High School. (1937) Then enrolled at Northwestern University School of Commerce and was studying accounting. His parents believed this was the best path in life for their son to earn a respectable living. But the call of the world was just too appealing, and Ratner dropped out of college to pursue his own interests. “Interests.” In as few words as possible, “interests” mean making money.

However, while he was still in College (1940), Ratner couldn’t resist. He started a little mail order business he called United Enterprises Inc. He sold old books, medicine, and just about anything he could get his hands on in quantity. Then came a pocket-sized adding machine. He made a huge killing on that product. He also sold stainless steel flatware. The lure of “making money” was just to much fun. Ratner started testing and using radio advertising to promote his mail order business, and in two years (1942) Ratner was a millionaire.

Ratner interrupted his marketing career by serving in World War II. After the military, Ratner returned to Chicago. He started all over again doing what he was always good at, listening, keeping his eyes open and looking for opportunities.

In the summer (1950) Ratner learned of the product developed by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation that sounded too good to be true. They called it “Warfarin.” The word on the street was Warfarin has been in development since 1930 and was now ready for commercial use. Ratner decided to hit the road and made the trip from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin to learn more about the product. After listening to an explanation of how the product worked and gave some consideration quickly how marketing might play, Ratner was convinced in 30 minutes he wanted in on this action. The product is nothing more than a blood thinner. Mice and Rats eat the stuff, bleed to death internally and seek water to quench their voracious thirst. It takes about 3-5 days for a rat to die. Now having a grasp of how the product works. Ratner signed a licensing agreement to be able to sell the product.

D-CON_1950

Ratner then quickly formed a company and called the product d-Con. The name “d-CON” being a reference to “decontaminate.” Ratner held 80% ownership in the d-CON product and the d-CON corporation.

\Early_d-CON_execs

d-CON BOARD OF DIRECTORS

Ratner signed a deal with the S.B. Patrick Company, which was already marketing the compound, for an initial supply. By (1951) 75 companies were selling the chemical warfarin, but none would have the impact of d-CON.

Ratner looked for his biggest market. Farms, and rural America. Again, radio was the key to Ratner’s marketing success in the past; he decided to use it again. In September (1950) Ratner signed agreements with a couple of rural radio stations that programmed to farmers as a test to see if it his product d-CON would sell. The radio buys were on farm and news programs 5:30 AM to 7:30 AM. The d-CON commercials were 15-minutes in length. We call them infomercials today. The test worked and worked well. In a short period, d-CON revolutionized the rodent control business.

Boy_Scouts_distribute_d-CON
LOCAL BOY SCOUT TROOP DISTRIBUTE d-CON

Marketing by radio was a big winner. But, to ramp up his commercialization of the product, Ratner picked Middleton, Wisconsin, a town with a really aggressive rat problem. In early November (1950) Ratner distributed to anyone who wanted it d-CON free of charge for 15 days. In less than 2 weeks the town of Middleton was entirely free of rats. With this positive press coverage and the stories of success with d-CON in Middleton, d-CON became a dominant pest control product. Radio was immediately ramped up to 425 radio stations coast to coast. Ratner was spending $30,000 a week on the radio. When asked in an interview why d-CON was so successful over all the other supplies Ratner said, “No one knew how to advertise the product properly.”

In May (1951) Ratner stopped using mail order to ship d-CON to its customers. He had decided to place the product in more than 40,000 drug, grocery, and hardware stores instead. The success of d-CON led Ratner to expand his business, Ratner announcing plans to market 10 to 12 new household products as a result of the success of d-CON.

D-CON, in particular, was a huge success and Ratner sold the brand in (1956) for about seven million dollars. Seven million dollars in today’s money (2017) would be about 63.8 million dollars.

LUCKY LEE RANCH / LEELAND HEIGHTS / LEHIGH ACRES

LEE RATNER - HORSE

Now we start act two of this story. In looking for clues, I’m not sure what is truth and what is fable at this point. The first story to tell is Lee Ratner is doing quite well for himself and has a lot of money and was thinking about selling d-CON and knew when he did he would face a significant tax penalty at the tax rate of 35 percent. So, a 7 million dollar sale of d-CON would mean leaving 2.1 million dollars on the table for the federal boys to simply walk in the room pick up the money and walk out. Not even a “Thank you very much.” If the Southside Chicago boy takes a 7 million dollar payoff and reinvests it in some kind of agricultural endeavor, the federal tax rate is considerably more forgiving. So, what to do? Leave money on the table or learn a new trick?

Here is the second story that is being pushed around. (1951) Lee Ratner moves from Chicago to Miami with his family to look for new business opportunities, period! Ratner didn’t sell d-CON till 1956. So, Lee Ratner, according to his son’s book says, in essence, tax considerations were not considered at that point in his father’s life. Was Leonard Lee Ratner thinking 5 years ahead knowing he would sell d-CON? Or was Lee simply tired of Chicago winters and wanted to move to warm? Did he have contacts in Miami that encouraged him to move? Was Ratner aware of the property in eastern Lee County before deciding to go to Miami? Was he already moving to be close to some kind of a farming operation? I understand his son in writing his book, wants us to believe his dad gave no considerations to tax liabilities at all. That’s a bit of a stretch for me. I believe Lee Ratner would have always been extremely aware of how much of his money was going to the federal government in taxes. But, I must also agree Miami is not a farming community by any stretch of the imagination. Miami is another Southside Chicago in Lee Ratner’s world. However, I do question how quickly Ratner purchased farm property in eastern Lee County, Florida.

How do you move to Miami, and end up buying a ranch in eastern Lee County with 18,460 acres, 1,400 head of healthy cattle and three cattle brands as part of the deal unless you were aware of the property before you moved to Miami? All of this activity while moving and buying a large ranch takes place in about 4 months? The price of the ground, livestock, branding brands all came with an asking price of $675,000.

201996_orig

Lee Ratner decided to call the place the Lucky Lee Ranch. Did he name the farm to signal it being Lucky Lee Ratner ranch? Or Lucky Lee County Ranch. You decide on this one. I’m thinking, Lucky Lee Ratner on this one. Did he buy the property as a tax dodge as some have suggested? I believe our rough and tumble Southside Chicago boy still wears a coat that contains the weave of the same threads of fabric from his past in his personality. One simply has got to believe he had a plan. Take advantage of a lower tax rate and let the Southside street savvy Chicago kid transform into a laid back country boy. And in the process saves 1.5 million dollars.

Ratner invited his brother-in-law, Jim Richmond to fly down from Chicago for a visit. He wanted to show off the ranch to his sister and to Jim. But, in the back of his mind, he wanted Jim to like the place well enough to consider moving to East Lee County, Florida and run the operation for him. Richmond fell in love with the property and the climate. In the summer of (1952), Jim Richmond moved his family to the Lucky Lee Ranch and became the ranch manager.

PLANE ON RUNWAY

Ratner was living in Miami and decided to build a runway at the Lucky Lee for his private plane. His thinking was he could fly over from Miami and check on his investment, (Would this be a Business expense and tax deductible?) and enjoy his family on the weekend. The Southside Chicago kid and Jim Richmond started farming in earnest in crops that are not typically grown in South Florida. The Lucky Lee Ranch planted 130 acres of vegetables and a new crop for Southwest, Florida, called Alfalfa.

University researchers were interested in how the Lucky Lee Ranch was able to grow Alfalfa. They soon realized the farm was turning a profit and transporting hay with substantial contracts up north. This is the first time it was known a cash crop of Alfalfa could be profitable and shipped out of the state.

In doing research for this story, I found an article online saying, Jim Richmond, Ratner’s brother–in-law, said a few years before his death, as foreman of the Lucky Lee Ranch, they had raised a “good crop of alfalfa” one year and found they had grown more alfalfa than they needed and sold the extra to nearby ranchers. Richmond said when Ratner flew into the small airstrip one weekend, he told his brother-in-law (Ratner) proudly they had made money on the 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 money. Many still believe the late Leonard Lee Ratner used the ranch/farm as a write–off to lower his federal income tax burden.

JERRY GOULD
ENTER – GERALD “GERRY” GOULD.

Lee Ratner is now living and doing business in Miami. He calls a local advertising agency to place some ads in the Harper’ Bazaar Magazine for a perfume he is selling. The manager of the ad department had this same kind phony perfume scam with a different client a year ago and called Gerry Gould into the office. The manager says to Gerry, “I want you to run uptown and check out this wheeler-dealer and see what we got here if anything.” Gerry looks at the paper with the address handed to him by his manager. Gerry jumps in his car and drives up to 79th Street in Miami, where Ratner’s office building is located. Gerry parks his car and walks down the sidewalk finds the address and walks up to the building. Standing at the door are two thugs dressed in black shirts, black pants, black shoes. One of them has an embroidered monogram on his shirt in white letters with LLR.

“Do either of you boys know a guy by the name of Lee Ratner?” Gerry asks.

“I’m Lee Ratner. What do you want?”

Gerry replied, “I want to find out if you’re a crook.”

LEE RATNER - JERRY GOULD

LEONARD “LEE” RATNER –  GERALD “GERRY” GOULD

There were a few seconds of tension. Show business calls this a pregnant pause. But, as the story goes, Ratner laughed out loud and extended his hand and invited Gerry Gould in the office to make up his own mind. This exchange between Ratner and Gould would start a friendship and a business arrangement that would last a lifetime. As time passed, Ratner would invite Gould to fly over to the Lucky Lee Ranch with him to ride horses.

PLANE ON RUNWAY

Lee and Gerry would jump in the plane, fly to the ranch, change clothes and mount horses and chase cows just for the fun of “chasing cows.” Jim Richmond, farm manager and brother-in-law of Lee just shook his head, not only was there the expense of the plane ride from Miami but, he also yelled, “Do you have to chase the cows and make them loose weight? I would like to sell fat cows, not skinny cows.”

In just two short years Ratner had all the laid back country farming he as a Chicago city boy could handle. He was bored with the slow pace of agriculture and ranching. On a plane trip to the ranch, Lee told Gerry he was thinking about selling the place. It’s time to take the money and put it into something else. (1954)

For the next few hours, Ratner and Gould talked about options. First of all, Gould wanted to know if Ratner had plans for the money. Ratner said, “No, not yet.” Okay, Gould said, selling the place and moving on is one option. But, here’s a crazy idea you might think about. Gould proposed what might happen with the farm was if they cut the property up into a checkboard pattern and sell half acre lots mail order to people up north. It would require marketing and sales. The more they talked, the more Ratner got excited about the idea of selling real estate lots mail order. Ratner went work and formed a new corporation. The Lee County Land and Title Company. Next, Ratner made Gerry Gould the President. Ratner also hired two old friends and former business associates Manuel Riskin and Edward Shapiro. Ratner held 48% ownership, Gould 22% and Riskin and Shapiro 15%.

MANUEL MANNY RISKIKN, EDWARD SHAPIRO, RATNER GOULD

(L-R) Manuel “Manny” Riskin, Edward Shapiro, Leonard Lee Ratner, Gerald “Gerry” Gould.

To pay for engineering and survey work to develop a plan and cut some roads they needed funding. Gee and Jensen Engineering was hired to provide water management to aid in storm water storage. Roads would need to be built by someone. Little thought was given to partitioning the land along natural features or leaving space for basic community needs. Gerry Gould then remarked “We gave so much energy to selling the ground that the standard reservations for commercial properties, schools, all the ancillary things you need in a community, weren’t made or even thought of. We even had canals that ran uphill. I don’t know how many mistakes we made, but we made them, a lot of them.”

7-50 down 7 50 a month

This was gong to be expensive and would require outside funding. So, off to New York to talk to the banks. On the plane to the Big Apple, they pull out a barf bag out of the back of an airplane seat pocket and open it up and make notes on what a marketing plan might look like. This plane trip is where the idea of a half-acre and quarter acre homestead lot in sunny Florida came from. The price? $495.00 with terms of $7.50 down and $7.50 a month. With 5,000 lots being sold it was calculated they could make almost 2.5 million dollars. This is also where they kick around various names for the development. The barf bag has the name LeeLand Heights at the bottom of the bag. And it was called Leeland Heights for several years.

FLOAT

Marketing efforts were designed to touch individuals in communities far and near. The Edison Festival of Light Parade, in downtown Fort Myers, was a yearly focal point in Southwest Florida. In 1955, Lee County Land and Title Company entered a float for “LeeLand Heights in LeeHigh Acres, Florida.)

Lee Ratner decided very early on that lots were not moving or being sold fast enough. In order to increase sales, The company rebranded the community. In 1977 the name was revised to Lehigh Acres. The company had new marketing material featuring new lot sizes and the famous $10.00 dollars down and $10.00 a month sales pitch. Operations were being run out of Miami. Gerry Gould decided he needed to be closer to the project and moved to LeeHeights/Lehigh Acres to better keep tabs on all the activities. Gould would live in Lehigh until he returned to Miami in 1972.

Leonard Lee Ratner was having a ball. He had a new toy to market and play with. Advertisements were placed in newspapers all across the United States. They would run an ad in a Friday addition of the papers and on Tuesday the mail would come rolling in. Sacks of mail from the post office full of envelopes with money. It was so successful that they modified the advertisement and now offered lots for $10.00 down and $10.00 a week. There was so much mail at one point they had to use trash cans to store all the money. Within a year, 12,000 lots were sold with a minimum price of $495.00 to $595. This is a six to twelve million dollar operation now. The plan was not to offer a deed to the customer until the balance was settled. If a customer stopped paying the $10.00 a month the customer lost their investment. And the lot could be resold to someone else.

FIRST

In 1955 Oran Gibbs, Detroit, Michigan looked at the advertisement for LeeLand Heights and decided he wanted to live in Florida. In fact, he wanted to live in LeeLand Heights. So, he dropped a check in the mail for $14,000 and expected his home to be built. Mr. Gibbs made a phone call to make sure the check arrived. He (Mr. Gibbs) was encouraged to come to Florida and see the neighborhood and make arrangements for building his new home. Three months later, Gerry Gould, President of Leeland Heights gets a phone call from manager Jim Richmond saying Mr. and Mrs. Gibbs, Detroit Michigan are here looking for their new home. Jim tells Gould, Mr. Gibbs said he sent a check and my house is paid in full, where is my home? “Gerry Gould, on the phone to Jim, “Well, yes I received his $14,000 check, but, I thought he would pay a visit before he packed up and moved to Florida. The company put Mr. and Mrs. Gibbs up at the Palm Hotel in Fort Myers and stored their furniture while their home was being built. The company called in builder George Davis out of St. Petersburg to build the home as quickly as possible. Mr. and Mrs. Gibbs were the first customers to build in LeeLand Heights.

BUILD ROAD

Lee County Land and Title Company hired engineers to subdivide the land and design hundreds of miles of roads. In 1956 Crabtree Construction was hired to take on the monumental task of providing the roads. (L-R) Robert Sweeny – Lee County Land and Title Company Home Construction, Edward Shapiro – Vice President, Jim Ruth – Engineer, Robert Crabtree – Owner Crabtree Construction, and Jim Richmond – General Manager Lee County Land and Title Company.

ROAD GRADER

New roadways were named after the family members of company employees. Joel Boulevard was named after Lee Ratner’s Son. Richmond Avenue after Jim Richmond, brother-in-law of Lee Ratner. Al Brighton and Dave Langford and road grader are pictured working on Alabama Road.

loading a truck

TRUCK ROAD GRADER.

And here is the interesting part of the “deal.” Much to the chagrin of the partners, people wanted a home built on their lot. People were actually planning on moving and living in Lee Heights/LeHigh Acres. This created a whole new problem. They were taken back with the idea that people wanted to live in Florida. So they had to become builders as well. How do they do that? Ratner simply started a new company, and he called it the Lehigh Building and Development Company. Now Ratner is selling the land and building homes.

1950 FOR SALE SIGN

Wait a minute we have a problem. We need to offer water and sewer services and collect a fee for that service too. Why didn’t we think of this in the beginning? Thus, Ratner started a company called the Lehigh Acres Utilities Company. Whenever a problem seems to complicate things Ratner started another company. The last major company Ratner began in Lehigh relating to services, was the Lehigh Industries & Investment Corporation. Lee owned 51% of the investment again to compliment growing and building out Lehigh Acres.

CD JERRY GOULD

The Sheldon Leasing Company was hired to build a shopping center around 1958. Lehigh Memorial Park Inc. was created to operate a cemetery in 1962. With demand high, the Lee County Land and Title Company started purchasing more land in the area. By 1959, it owned 30,000 acres of land in what would become Lehigh Acres of which 18,000 acres were under active development. By using a limited set of home designs consumer could pick, the company was able to build a new home in 90 to 120 days. The Lee County Land and Title Company also operated a motel on the property and built a civic auditorium dedicated to public use.

GIRL IN SWIM SUIT

SANTA AND GIRL

Because they gave no thought to utilities for Lehigh Acres, growth created a constant cash crunch. Marketing was ratcheted up again. In the middle of winter, bikini-clad models In Michigan and Wisconsin under heat lamps showed off Lehigh model homes. Elephants were paraded around the Midwest carrying banners saying “Fly to Florida for peanuts!” Private planes were used to fly Northerners to Lehigh to view the “Charmed Circle” of model homes and luscious gardens. At almost any gas station across America, you could fill out a form to win a free trip to LeHigh. Drop the form in the box, and you could win a four-night three-day vacation in Florida. Well, guess what, everybody who filled out the form was a winner. They would get a phone call, and they would be told, “You’re the Lucky Winner, when would you like to fly to Florida?”

BILL ELLOTT

BILL ELLOTT

Bill Ellot was one of the fast-talking high-pressure salesmen who worked the sales room. Bill made a lot of money and had a lot of fun selling lots. When he talks about the sales techniques used in the early days, you can see the enthusiasm in his body and his voice. To watch him recount the stories, you can see him reliving a time in his life when Ellott was an actor performing before his audience. Instead of applause, he got them to sign on the dotted line and took their $10.00 and had them sign a commitment for $10.00 every month thereafter. Fifteen to twenty charter buses a day would roll in from all over Florida to tour Lehigh Acres. Loaded with 20-25 couples who had come to look at this retirement community known as Lehigh Acres. That means of course 150 to 180 customers a day. The bus ride was free of course, with the promise of a free breakfast and lunch and a bag of oranges on your way home.

“It’s not going to cost you a dime, no money at all. There’s no charge for the tour. And after the tour, if you like what you see, you might want to participate, if you don’t, there’s no obligation.”

The signup cards were places just about everywhere. Gas stations, restaurants and hardware stores, everywhere. The card said, Signup for a chance at a free trip to the most beautiful retirement community in Southwest Florida. If you win, you will be treated to a free breakfast and free lunch for just touring Lehigh Acres retirement community. Of course, everyone who signed the card was an automatic winner as was the norm.

So we had them sitting in the small sales room and, I would tell-um up front, “If you have good credit, no credit, bad credit, unemployed, bankrupt, on Social Security, escaped from jail, under the witness protection program, your qualified. And the reason is, you can’t put the land on a truck, and take it to Tampa, the land will be here tonight, tomorrow night and the next night.”

If you came from Miami or Tampa on a bus to take your free tour of Lehigh Acres and didn’t buy a lot, you would be going home on a different bus. The buyers who did purchase a lot were loaded on one bus, and the couples who didn’t buy a lot were loaded onto another bus. This was to prevent the non-buying customers talking the buying customers out of their decision about their purchase they had just made.

Between the 1950’s and 2000, roughly 15,000 homes were built in Lehigh Acres. Between 2000 and 2006 that number doubled. In the fourth quarter of 2005 homes were selling on average of $322,300. Then in 2007-2008 the housing meltdown. By the first quarter of 2011, the average price of a home in Lehigh Acres was $91,800. A 72% drop in home prices in 5 years.

SALES SIGN

LEHIGH SIGN SQUARE

Bill continued. “I knew in 2006 and 2007 I could see the handwriting on the wall, people were buying houses with no money down, that doesn’t work. Some people were trying to buy 3-4 5 homes with no money down thinking they were going to flip them and make big money. Then the market crashed. In fact, I ran a little test about 10 or 12 years ago; I ran an ad in the newspaper, the Fort Myers News-Press, no money down no payments for 90 days, $50.00 a month. I sold 22 lots. You know how many people paid me the fourth month? Zero. You’ve got to have the money to buy the property. You would think at least one person would have the money, but you know what, not one, not one person paid me in the fourth month, not one.”

Median Home Prices in Lee County went from $140,000 in 2003 to 322,300 in two years later, 130% increase. Lots in Lehigh were selling for $60,000 and $70,000 a piece. The banks were lending 30,000 dollars financing the lots. Today, (2017) if you can find a buyer, a lot can be purchased in Lehigh Acres for $2,500 – $4,000.

On September 14, 1963, Ratner and the other original partners sold the Lee County Land and Title Company to Sacred Heart Parish (the territorial division of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Austin, Texas) for $12.5 million in the form of notes and a purchase-money mortgage. Sacred Heart, in turn, lent the legal ownership of the property to the Lehigh Acres Development Corporation, which was wholly owned by Howard M. Lawn. Ratner was retained by the new company in a consulting role.

Ratner was also a 25% owner and chairman of the board of the Southern Radio and Television Company (originally Lehigh Acres Radio & Television Company), which was founded in 1960 with the aim of serving the Lehigh Acres community and making the area more attractive to live in. Southern’s application to build a broadcasting tower was approved in December 1966 on land donated by the Lee County Land and Title Company.

The population of Lehigh Acres boomed from 500 families in 1960 to 5000 by the end of the decade. In 1969, Lehigh Acres Development Corporation was purchased by the Scientific Resources Corporation in an all-stock deal. Two years later, Scientific Resources went bankrupt, and the company and the debt were transferred to Security Savings and Loan. In 1991 the company was sold to Minnesota Power now know as Allete.

Lehigh Acres had name changes and leadership changes as well, Starting In 1954 Lehigh Acres had nine presidents Gerald Gould, Harry C. Powell Jr., John E Morgan, Eugene Quinn, Dennie Rowland, Bob Raushenberger, Carl Strunk, William Livingston, and Greg Morris.

LEHIGH SIGN

Further real estate ventures & oil exploration

Spurred by the apparent success of Lehigh, Ratner bought property throughout Florida. In 1957, he was part of a lawsuit against the Florida government seeking to overturn a new law preventing the filling of submerged land in Boca Ciega Bay. To create valuable waterfront property, developers would buy unusable partially submerged coastline and fill it to create usable land.

From 1958 to 1964, Ratner sought to develop property on the Venetian Islands in St. Petersburg under the Venetian Isle Development Corporation, a subsidiary of the Lee County Land and Title Company. In 1965, he and Gould conceived of a “traveling house.” The home consisted of two 10 ft by 40 ft sections carried on separate trailers that were bolted together at the point of display. Its purpose was to show northerners “something about the types of new houses that are available in the South, according to press coverage.

In June 1958, Ratner formed the Leeco Gas & Oil Company for purposes of oil exploration. Three gas wells were placed in Brown County, Texas in December, with a combined operating capacity of 2.5 million cubic feet daily. A number of additional drilling permits were obtained in Texas, but by 1960 the business had “practically petered out” according to a 1963 FCC hearing on Southern Radio & Television. At some point, the company was revived. Additional Texas gas wells were drilled in 1964. By 1975, Ratner expanded westward into Colorado and California.

OWNER

Leonard Lee Ratner died in the year 2000.

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About the author

Stephen A and Scott Duncan publish "ByDuncan.com" Scott photographs (Duncan Photography) and is the guy who keeps this site running. Steve (left) is a photographer (Duncan Photography) and writes to "ByDuncan.com"