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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 19, 2014 3 years ago

Big potential

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Public opinion can flatten a real estate project before it gets going. One developer takes an attack-first strategy.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Executive Summary
Company. Lake Flores Industry. Development, commercial real estate Key. Project is one of the biggest in Manatee County in several years.

Fourth-generation Manatee County farmer turned real estate developer Whiting Preston is growing something not seen in years on many parts of the Gulf Coast: a supersized and super ambitious mixed-use, master-planned community.

The project is Lake Flores, a southwest Bradenton development Preston and many others believe has potential to significantly reshape a large portion of Manatee County. Plans, for a buildout of 20 years, include up to 6,500 residences, a combination of homes, condos and apartments; 3 million square feet of retail and office space; and two hotels with 500 rooms. The project is on 1,300 acres of empty farmland and fields next to IMG Academy, between Cortez Road, El Conquistador Parkway and 53rd Avenue West.

Manatee County planners have begun to look over the project, especially possible zoning code changes, and sent questions back to Preston and his team in early December. Public hearings could be held in March or April, and Manatee County commissioners will get the final vote. “This is one of the biggest projects we've had in recent years,” says Shelley Hamilton, a principle planner with the Manatee County Planning Department.

While a strength for the project's backers, the size also represents Preston's biggest anxiety. “What worries me the most is people won't understand what we are really doing,” says Preston. “We aren't taking pristine land and turning it into development.”

Preston acknowledges many times the public perception of a project, true or not, can squash a development long before a brick is ever laid. So in an effort to avoid any confusion and misconception, and to sway public opinion, Preston has taken a somewhat unusual step: He and his team have engaged in a lengthy online debate about the project, through a blog on the project's website and on Facebook.

There have been multiple negative comments on the website mixed with positive responses, from traffic complaints to compliments on Preston's transparency. Preston and his team have responded to nearly every negative comment. (See related story.)

The Web-based dialogue is a contrast to Long Bar Pointe, a recent mixed-use project proposal a few miles north of Lake Flores. Manatee County commissioners rejected a portion of Long Bar Pointe last year after a lengthy public debate. The future of that project is currently in litigation.

Opposition forces to Long Bar Pointe organized a social media blitz long before the hearings that included a Facebook page under the name Save the Manatee County Shoreline. The lead developer behind Long Bar Pointe, Manatee County homebuilder Carlos Beruff, says he was blindsided by the technically savvy opposition. In an interview with the Business Observer after a marina portion of the project was rejected, Beruff says his biggest regret was not engaging quicker with the community, especially on the Internet. “If this ever happens again I will have a message out faster,” Beruff says. “I will have a website up much faster. I will have hired a P.R. firm.”

'Deep roots'
Preston says the Lake Flores website, www.bradentonsfuture.com, wasn't because of Beruff's experience — though he closely followed the Long Bar Pointe saga. Instead, Preston says the site is a sincere effort to engage with the community and maybe even tweak the project based on the responses. “As a family with deep roots in Bradenton,” he writes on an introductory page on the site, “we ask for your input and support to help make southwest Bradenton the vibrant community it can be.”

The Lake Flores name represents the Preston family's long history in agriculture and growing flowers: The Spanish word Flores means flowers in English. The project is based on New Urbanism, live-work-play design concepts. Beyond the homes and commercial space, plans include a 20-acre manmade lake and multiple biking and walking trails. Preston says the project's aesthetic will be for the everyman, not a select few. “It will be open,” says Preston. “There will not be a lot of gates and private entry.”

Preston cites Baldwin Park in Orlando, a redeveloped U.S. Navy training base, for one nearby example of a large infill property that could be a model for Lake Flores. Baldwin Park, on 1,100 acres three miles outside downtown Orlando, has 8,000 residents and more than 125 business.

Preston, who also runs Manatee Fruit Co., his family's farming and flower business, has been working on Lake Flores in some form since 2010. He released the plans publicly on the website earlier this year. Preston's previous real estate projects include Terra Ceia Bay, a development in northeast Manatee County with 116 luxury waterfront condos and an 18-hole golf course. Preston says he's spent somewhere between $1 million and $5 million on the Lake Flores project. “It's a sizable investment,” Preston says, “and there is more work to do.”

Changed model
While a project's large size sometimes attracts an equally large pot of critics, it could be different with Lake Flores, says longtime Florida developer Ed Hill, who now works for Preston. “Size is an advantage,” says Hill, a former division president with the St. Joe Co., once one of the largest landowners in Florida. “If you broke this up into 13, 100-acre projects you wouldn't get this vision.”

Besides, the Preston family is intimately familiar with big chunks of land.

Manatee Fruit Co., founded under the name Manatee Lemon Co. in 1892, was once one of the largest cut flower growers in the Southeast United States. Clients that bought flowers from the company included Albertson's and Walmart, and distribution stretched to Europe and South America. The company had about 200 employees at its peak.

But the business model has shifted over the past few decades, mostly from agriculture market forces. A majority of the current farmland Manatee Fruit has is leased to third-party growers, and other large parcels have been sold off entirely. That includes 1,440 acres it owned in Naples that it sold to WCI Communities, then Westinghouse Communities, over several years in the 1990s for about $47 million. The Tiburon Golf Club at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort and Pelican Marsh Golf Club were built there.

On Lake Flores Preston is determined to not sell the land, but to build something with lasting, generational impact on Manatee County. “There aren't many parcels like this in Florida,” says Preston. “It would have been far easier for us to go to homebuilders and sell this off in chunks and pieces. But we have been working here for more than 100 years. I live in town. I want to do what's right.”


The good and the bad
Manatee County developer Whiting Preston and his team behind Lake Flores, a master-planned development project proposed for southwest Manatee County, have used the Internet extensively to reach out to the community. Preston has done that through www.bradentonsfuture.com, which has turned into something of a growth vs. no growth blog.

Comments require a first name and last initial. Preston or others with the development write back to most of the negative posts. Here are some examples of recent posts, which are responses to brief updates and articles from the development team:

“I think Lake Flores is appropriately named, planned and located. The timing is right for a renaissance for the west Bradenton & Cortez Road corridor. The location is ideal, the size lends itself to a well planned, executed and managed mixed use community. Naples & Bonita Springs provide ideal blueprints for what master-planned communities have done for their cities in terms of property value, amenities, life style and economic growth.”

“It always saddens me to see beautiful land which is becoming so scarce, developed into a haven for mega structures which put a drain on the ecology and environment. I realize that money is the bottom line but I truly hope that whatever development occurs, has a manageable impact on the area. Traffic is already becoming a problem so it's hard to imagine how 8,500 proposed dwellings AND retail space won't create severe congestion. Lakewood Ranch is beautiful but I would NEVER want to live there and deal with the congestion.”

“I would love to see farming continue this part of in Manatee County. We need the jobs and tomatoes. I also believe keeping the waterfront as parkland would improve the plan; however, quite a lot of expensive homes and infrastructure will be built on land that will be subject to flood and storm damage. A major part of the project should create more public access to natural areas.”

On that comment, the developers responded: “Patricia, thank you for viewing our website and taking the time to comment. Continuing to farm the property in a urban setting surrounded by infrastructure including roads, sidewalks, and storm water and waste water lines is simply not practical or productive. Our property does not border the water and the land is not in a flood zone. While the vision for our plan calls for a great deal of open space that would be available to the public, there is very little if any natural area as the property has been farmed for 50 years.”

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