Mark Wemple. The Rural Development Committee in Parrish, including, from left to right, Evan Guido, Gretchen Fowler, Norma Kennedy and Alan Jones, would like to see more businesses come to this part of north Manatee County.

Citizen-led group clamors for economic development

The growth vs. no growth conundrum is on full display in one Manatee County town. Will the business community win the day?
By: 
Mar. 30, 2018

Prolific area developer Carlos Beruff is so confident in the future of Parrish, one of the last large rural pieces of undeveloped land in north Manatee County, he’s not just building homes there.

He also recently bought land to build a home in Parrish for his own family.

“In five years Parrish will have changed, and changed for the better,” says Beruff. “I’m a big believer in Parrish.”

The theory that change is coming to Parrish — about 11 miles from downtown Bradenton and 22 miles from downtown St. Petersburg — has driven lots of activity there of late. And from developers to county officials to longtime residents, there is one sliver of agreement about the changes: Old Parrish, with its orange groves, cattle grazing and wrap-around porches, is queued up for history.

The disagreement comes in how much the growth will transform the community, and in which directions. These are challenges, of course, many communities on the west coast of Florida grapple with, from Lehigh Acres in Lee County to New Port Richey in Pasco County.

The situation in Parrish, where the population is projected to double, from around 25,000 now to 50,000 by 2030, is acute. The situation is also somewhat abnormal in the region in that an energetic group of citizens embraces, or at a minimum, is not all-out fighting forces of growth, unlike some other communities. This citizen-led group includes a hospice nurse, a money manager and a potato farmer.

A blanket-no growth mindset, says Alan Jones, who runs Jones Potato Farm in town, is why Parrish is Manatee County’s forgotten fringe in the first place. “We’ve had 10 years of not in my backyard mentality,” says Jones, who launched his farm in 1986 with his dad. “And now there’s no growth here at all.”

Evan Guido, a director in private wealth management with the Sarasota office of Robert W. Baird & Co., who lives in Parrish with his family, helped organize the group three years ago. “We are out there with our hands up saying we want businesses to come here,” Guido says. “We are carrying the torch for the community.”

Bridge to somewhere

To usher in the changes in Parrish, Manatee County spent $32.5 million on a two-year project to build the Fort Hamer Bridge. The bridge connects Fort Hamer Road with Upper Manatee River Road — linking Parrish with Lakewood Ranch, an uber-fast growing master-planned community in east Manatee County and north Sarasota County. The bridge was also designed to alleviate traffic from Interstate 75.   

‘We are out there with our hands up saying we want businesses to come here.’ Evan Guido, Rural Development Committee, Parrish

The bridge on the Parrish side leads to hundreds of new homes, with thousands more on the way. Beruff, with Medallion Home; fellow prolific builder Pat Neal, with Neal Communities; and a handful of others, such as John Cannon Homes, Arthur Rutenberg and Lee Wetherington Homes are all in the area. National homebuilders are on the scene, too. “I believe Parrish, in the next five years, will be the new center of the universe,” Pat Neal says.

In between the citizens and the homebuilders is Manatee County, both planners and elected officials, who are trying to balance both sides of the growth equation. “As a big property rights state, developers have the right to do what they want to do if they follow the rules,” says Manatee County Commission Chairwoman Priscilla Whisenant Trace, whose district includes Parrish. “Right now we are just trying to get the old infrastructure caught up with the (demand.)”

That includes a major push for sewer line extensions in Parrish, says John Osborne, the county's interim deputy administrator and infrastructure and strategic planning official. That's in the works through a developer-funded extension at Moccasin Wallow and U.S. 301, he says. "We leave it up to developers to spend the money, build it to our specs, dedicate it to us and then use it," Osborne says. 

More growth? Parrish is the next education capital of the county, with a high school under construction, an elementary and middle school in the planning stages and a new campus for State College of Florida in the works.

A new center

The group that includes Jones and Guido, seeing the progress, aims to steer development toward a community that emphasizes walking and biking over big-box shopping centers and strip malls. One element they know they want is a centralized downtown-type main street, a mix of local and regional businesses. That area would be from U.S. 301 to Route 62, and include the Florida Railroad Museum, a popular family tourist attraction.

A unit of the Parrish Civic Association named the Rural Development Committee, the group came together in 2015 and meets regularly now. They’ve invested their own money for planners and other projects. Guido, 36, is the chairman of the RDC, working closely with PCA President Gretchen Fowler, a hospice nurse and longtime area resident who is also on the committee.

“We were tired of hearing everybody say no to all kinds of different projects,” Fowler says. “We knew we had to get involved.”

The RDC recently hired former Manatee County zoning official Bob Schmitt, now a private land-use consultant, to lobby and work with the county on a specific pro-business direction. Schmitt says there are multiple obstacles for businesses, including landscaping buffer rules; signage regulations; parking density rules; and one of the biggest ones, a rule that any planned commercial building in Parrish over 5,000 square feet would require a public hearing.

One of the changes Schmitt is pushing for is to increase the planned commercial building-public hearing requirement to 20,000 square feet.

“With all those limitations, it doesn’t attract businesses,” says Schmitt. “These are not enhancers for businesses to come into the area. We need to take off the handcuffs.”  

The RDC has visited several downtowns in Florida, and keeps a scrapbook of magazine articles of examples it would like Parrish to emulate. The list includes Dunedin, Mount Dora and Winter Park.

Mark Wemple. The Rural Development Committee in Parrish includes, from left to right, Alan Jones, Gretchen Fowler, Evan Guido and Norma Kennedy.

Builder’s paradise

That downtown could be the hotspot for thousands of residents, courtesy of the surge in new homes.

Lee Wetherington Homes is one of the more recent area builders to join the Parrish party. Known for larger homes that start in the $800s, the builder recently announced plans to open Cypress Glen, inside the gated River Wilderness Golf and Country Club in Parrish. Lee Wetherington has 47 home sites there, where it plans to build villas that start in the $500s. The company will also build custom homes, in its more traditional price points, in another Parrish community, Islands on the Manatee River.

“We wanted to diversify,” Lee Wetherington Homes CEO Gregg Carlson says, in both price points and geography. “We wanted to add another kind of buyer profile.”

Beruff’s Medallion Home has owned land in Parrish and built there going back to at least 1999, and its current communities include Gamble Creek Preserve and CrossCreek. Some 930 acres Beruff controls in Parrish was also part of an application he submitted to Amazon for the online giant’s Amazon HQ2 headquarters project last year.  

Neal Communities likewise has several options for homebuyers in Parrish, including Sliverleaf and River’s Reach. Silverleaf has a been a strong seller for the company, says Pat Neal, with about 10 closings a month.

Like some of his peers, Neal says Parrish, with the education component, the Fort Hamer Bridge and its location between Sarasota/Bradenton and St. Petersburg, is the next best thing after Lakewood Ranch. That community, developed by Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, is one of the top selling master-planned communities nationwide. “We love building in Lakewood Ranch,” says Neal, “but most of the land available for us is now north of the Ranch, and that’s in Parrish.” 

Guido and his comrades on the RDC are happy to see prominent builders like Beruff and Neal emphasize Parrish. But they also know new homes alone isn’t enough to build a sustainable, vibrant community. There has to be a business component — from a grocery store, say a Trader’s Joes, down to maybe even a flooring store: new homes now means renovations eventually. Says Guido: “We have to let everyone know we open for business.”