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Thomas Edison focused on botanical research at his laboratory in Fort Myers.EDISON-FORD WINTER ESTATES / COURTESY PHOTOWas 1928 a long time ago?
It seems like now when you’re standing in Thomas Edison’s Fort Myers laboratory, which was built that year. All his glass beakers, heavy-duty machinery and whatnots — the original ones — are arranged just as if he and the research team stepped out for lunch and would be right back, despite the fact that Mr. Edison died in 1931.
In the space of those three years, the inventor of light bulbs poured his considerable creative and research ability into a new company, the Edison Botanic
Research Corp. The mission: find a domestic, natural source for rubber, a resource valuable to the United States as well as his friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, who needed it for tires.
The Edison & Ford Winter Estates offers regular tours of the Botanical Laboratory and gardens. Here, Mr. Edison and his team of specialists — widely recognized as a template for what is now the modern research and development lab — tested more than 17,000 types of plants, searching for a commercially viable source of natural rubber.
Edison Estate curator Mike Cosden stands in the legendary laboratory. EVAN WILLIAMS / FLORIDA WEEKLY“Edison always thought there were solutions to be found in nature rather than synthesizing chemicals in a laboratory,” said Mike Cosden, curator at the Winter Estates.
Mr. Edison, with financial contributions from partners Ford and Firestone, built the lab and headquarters in Fort Myers, right across from their homes. It was the right spot, the subtropical climate similar to where most of the world’s rubber was then being produced in Asia.
In May, the Winter Estates was recognized by the American Chemical Society as a National Historic Chemical Landmark, the first such designation in Florida and one of only a few in the United States, for Edison’s contribution as a researchand development chemist.
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Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone outside the laboratory. EDISON-FORD WINTER ESTATES“I think it changes the whole slant on the Edison and Ford site,” said Chris Pendleton, CEO of the Estates. “It’s not just where they lived and vacationed, it’s where they came to work.
“I also think it characterizes Lee County a little differently. It’s not just a tourist spot, it’s a place where research and invention is also happening and can have a home here.”
That’s true here and in other Florida counties, where governments and communities have wooed modern bioscience companies, such as Algenol Biofuels, which produces ethanol using patented algae technology.
The company’s research and development was like Mr. Edison’s in that it systematically screened thousands of strains of algae to find a handful that work to produce ethanol commercially, said Paul Roessler, the company’s chief scientific officer. He moved to the area about 2½ years ago before visiting the Botanic Lab.
Curator Mike Cosden in Thomas Edison’s lab, which looks much like it did 85 years ago. EVAN WILLIAMS / FLORIDA WEEKLY“When we ultimately made it to the Winter Estates I didn’t realize at the time that this laboratory existed. Much of my career has been spent looking for renewable and domestic sources of these kinds of polymers… You think about light bulbs and electricity and phonographs, I hadn’t realized there was a botanical side to (Edison), but it made a lot of sense.”
Today as in Mr. Edison’s time, there was great interest in the positive impact that a bioscience company could have both in terms of notoriety and economically. For his Research Corp. the interest was on a national scale, although Mr. Edison employed a local team that included a research superintendent, linguist, shop manager, chemist, secretary, plant collectors and a part-time glass blower.
The New York Times reported from Fort Myers in February 1927, “Thomas A. Edison is working way past midnights in his laboratory here on an experiment which he believes will revolutionize the world’s rubber trade and change the South from the land of cotton to the rubber-producing center of the United States.
That didn’t happen. High labor costs associated with growing rubber plants was one of the big hurdles Mr. Edison faced. He believed he could invent a machine to harvest it at lower costs once he found the right plant. Others thought cheap foreign labor was the way to go. The New York Times reported in March 1927 that a retired British Army officer living in Palm Beach, Capt. Arthur Herbert Vaughan-Williams, thought the U.S. should import “several thousand Hindu laborers” to work on rubber farms.
“They can live on a handful of rice a day and it would cost little enough to keep them,” the Times quotes Mr. Vaughan-Williams.
Although Mr. Edison didn’t end up creating a commercial source of rubber, his work at the lab has far-reaching historical significance.
With British rubber flooding the market after World War I — Great Britain established vast plantations on land ithad colonized in South Asia, Mr. Cosden explained — one of Edison’s and the United States’ hopes was to create a domestic source, a boon for national security and the economy.
Goldenrod became the most promising plant after the Research Corp. bred a hybrid version for its purposes. In protecting his research, Mr. Edison and agricultural inventor Luther Burbank helped pass the Plant Patent Act of 1930, the first to offer plant breeders intellectual property protection, with implications for agricultural companies among others.
Mr. Edison felt he was close to finding a domestic, commercial source of rubber. He told the Times in March 1930:
“Give me five more years and the United States will have a rubber crop which can be utilized in less than 12 months’ time.”
He died the following year in October. The U.S. Department of Agriculture took over the lab, which remained in operation until 1936. Eventually synthetic rubber became a solution for the U.S., with natural sources grown overseas.
Now, at least one U.S. company, California based Yulex, produces natural rubber to replace the petroleum-based version in some commercial products. It uses guayule, a plant native to the arid U.S. southwest. Its non-allergenic rubber has been used for products such as medical gloves, condoms, and Patagonia wetsuits.
Melanie Venter of Yulex said volatility in the natural and synthetic rubber markets is “driving a search for alternative sources of natural rubber and a more sustainable, local rubber producing project.”
Mr. Edison would have been familiar with those market forces, even if environmental concerns factor more heavily today.
“He was certainly frustrated with the process,” Mr. Cosden said. “But, overall, he seemed very excited and optimistic about it right up until the end of his life. And I think that was modus operandi for Edison. He was always very persistent and optimistic.” ¦
The traditional home mortgage has taken a back seat to cash sales in South Florida, more so than any other place in the country. Cash buyers are leading the housing market recovery, Real estate agents said, but at the same time making it more difficult for middle-class buyers, who don’t have that kind of cash on hand and already face tight lending standards, to secure a mortgage.
Florida was king of cash sales in the second quarter of this year, defined as single-family homes and condos where no loan was recorded at the time of sale, according to a report by the research firm RealtyTrac. The state swept eight of the top 10 areas for cash sales in the country. The Cape Coral-Fort Myers area saw 62 percent cash sales, and Sarasota-Bradenton-Venice 61.5 percent, the second and third highest of the 100 largest metro areas in the United States
The greater Miami area took the top spot at 64 percent. Hidalgo County, Texas, and the Las Vegasarea rounded out the list at numbers seven and 10. The national average was 37.9 percent.
Those figures are “very consistent with what we’re seeing here in Charlotte County,” where cash accounted for 66 percent of single-family home and condo sales in the second quarter, said Roger Morris, managing broker at Michael Saunders & Company.
Nationwide, cash sales were especially high for the cheapest and the priciest properties, RealtyTrac says. In the luxury Naples market, Realtor Corey Cabral reported that fully 96 percent of his homes sold for cash in the last two years, priced from $500,000 to more than $1 million.
In addition to the sunny lifestyle, buyers were attracted to the lower prices, driven down in the wake of recession and now beginning to appreciate again. Too, cash deals don’t require the red tape of loan applications and appraisals.
CABRALThe cash buyers fall into three main categories, said Daren Blomquist, RealtyTrac vice president: investors aiming to flip or rent property, from institutions such as Wall Street firms to individuals; foreign buyers looking for a safe haven for their money or a trophy property; and retirees who may have sold a home up north and brought the proceeds south.
They may also have cashed in other investments.
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“They were able to see a significant gain in their stock portfolio,” said Randy Thibaut, president and CEO of Land Solutions, which specializes in residential tracking and land transactions in Southwest Florida. “They took some of those winnings of the table and instead of reinvesting it used it to buy a home in Southwest Florida while prices were still down.”
The influx of cash helps the market recover in the “short term,” said Mr. Blomquist, but traditional mortgages play an important role in allowing young families and other middle-class buyers to enter the market.
BIENZ“We need to see more first-time home buyers and move-up buyers participating in the housing recovery for it to continue to happen,” Mr. Blomquist said.
Mr. Morris added that buyers who need a loan and compete with cash offers generally lose unless they are especially credit worthy and make a higher offer.
The average price point for cash sales of single family homes is about $150,000 in Charlotte County, while the average overall is $170,000, said Crystal Bienz, a Realtor based in Punta Gorda.
“The low end is right now almost strictly cash,” she said. “The regular buyers, they can’t compete with these cash buyers.”
Cash buyers helped absorb distressed property but eventually, Mr. Thibaut predicts, they will be fewer in number.
“And that is where the challenges lie,” he said. “Because most of the people who have decent credit and had the ability to go get a loan have, and now what’s showing up is the challenged credit buyers.”
Mr. Blomquist notes cash sales have already abated slightly from a year ago in South Florida, by about 2 percent, indicating a continuing decrease in the trend that began when the housing market bottomed out after the great recession and vulture buyers began to swoop in looking for deals.
Luxury homes for cash
Corey Cabral has been a Realtor in the Naples luxury housing market for the better part of four decades and is watching the trend in cash sales with fascination.
“This is a dramatic change in the real estate market in recent Naples history,” he said.
With home interest rates so low, buyers might consider taking out a mortgage and investing their cash in the surging stock market instead, he points out. But that’s not happening, indicating that cash buyers see a home as a better bet than stocks or other investments.
“The national and international (buyers), particularly, consider Naples to be a very secure marketplace for investment and I believe that’s why they’re willing to leave their cash here in the real estate instead of other avenues for investment,” he said.
For Mr. Cabral, Canadians are his top international market. There is also a mix of European, Asian, Indian and Brazilian buyers.
“The investor doesn’t have the confidence in the governments and so they look to invest their profits outside of their own country in the U.S. marketplace.”
Mr. Cabral has been through three recessionand recovery cycles, he said, and finds in the current version cause for both concern and confidence. “I don’t like to see a recovery at the pace that it’s moving at because it’s a clear duplicate of the last recovery we had, moving too fast, ultimately ending in a bust,” he said. “But what’s very different now — this boom is being driven by cash buyers. The last boom was driven by cheap mortgage access. Anyone who was a warm body could come in and get a mortgage back in 2004, 2005 and 2006, and that was fueling the huge price run-up inCollier County whereas today we’re not seeing it at all. Even if there’s a pullback, the cash buyers aren’t going to have to bail and run.” ¦
Last Modified: Saturday, September 6, 2014 at 4:46 p.m.
SALES OF DISTRESSED HOMES IN Southwest Florida have continued to decline throughout this year, mirroring a state and national trend.
But Florida is still reporting the second-highest level of short and foreclosure sales as a percentage of all residential transactions.
Distressed sales accounted for 21 percent of all single-family home and condominium sales in Sarasota County in July, the most recent month measured by real estate researcher RealtyTrac. That was down from 26 percent of such sales one year earlier.
Short, foreclosure or bank-owned sales accounted for nearly 20 percent of all homes sales in Manatee County, down from 28 percent over the year.
In Charlotte County, distressed sales totaled 20 percent of all residential closings, compared with 31 percent in July 2013.
All three counties were below the statewide figure of 26 percent, however, of all sales stemming from the distressed market.
By comparison, the U.S. average was just 13.6 percent.
Median homes prices in the region, meanwhile, topped the national average in July.
The median sale price was $161,500, up 9 percent over the year, in Sarasota; $172,000, up 7 percent, in Manatee; and $129,075, up 10 percent, in Charlotte.
"As distressed sales continue to decline, the share of sales is tilting toward more expensive homes, boosting the nationwide median sales price," said Daren Blomquist, a RealtyTrac vice president.
"The nationwide home price increase, however, masks slowing home price appreciation in the majority of housing markets across the country," he added.
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