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Business Observer Friday, Jun. 26, 2020 5 months ago

Small time: Entrepreneur brings tiny homes, village to region

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Wisconsin-based Dan Dobrowolski, who has Gulf Coast roots, thinks downsized, affordable residences will be a hit in Tampa. He expects to move the small units fast.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

As demographic and economic trends have changed the way people think about home ownership, tiny homes have emerged as a popular alternative for debt-heavy millennials who find themselves priced out of the housing market and even struggle to find affordable rentals in some cities. 

Sensing an opportunity in Tampa Bay’s red-hot housing market, Dan Dobrowolski, a Wisconsin entrepreneur who has links to the region, has launched Escape Tampa Bay Village, a tiny home community on a 1-acre parcel at 11008 U.S. Highway 301 in Thonotosassa. Homes in the community range from around 400 to 800 square feet. 

Dobrowolski, 61, graduated from the University of South Florida in Tampa with a degree in meteorology. He spent years in the TV news industry before making an unusual switch and launching Escape Homes, his tiny home manufacturing firm, in 2013. Dobrowolski grew up in Chicago but spent some of his formative years on the Gulf Coast, when his family moved to Sarasota in 1975. He also worked for WFLA, the NBC affiliate in Tampa, before returning to the Midwest. 

“I was there when the Buccaneers were born,” he says. “We have very deep roots in the Tampa Bay area.” 

Dobrowolski believes his familiarity with the area will be a major asset for Escape Homes’ expansion in the area. He spent about $400,000 to acquire the property, which had been a run-down mobile home park, and had 10 tiny homes — towed down to Florida from his 45,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Rice Lake, Wisc. — placed on the site, about a 10-minute drive from USF’s main Tampa campus. With an eye toward a competitive advantage in details, he’s also spent $100,000 on landscaping, filling the site with luscious, carefully manicured native vegetation. 

But now that he’s built it, will buyers come? Will tiny home curiosity translate into sales? 

‘We're targeting people who are priced out of the market, but also people who don't want to live in, say, condominiums. People are getting out of cities.’ Dan Dobrowolski, founder and CEO of ESCAPE Homes

So far, the answer is a solid yes. Two Escape Tampa Bay Village units have already sold. One resident, 31-year-old Tim Mastic, has already moved in, taking possession June 12. Proving the broad demographic appeal of the tiny home lifestyle, the other buyer, Dobrowolski says, is an 81-year-old woman. 

“We've got quite a few more that are about to sell,” Dobrowolski says, “but we don’t want to discourage people. … We’re actually holding a few units back because we’re going to be expanding and we want people to look.” 

The COVID-19 crisis has been something of a blessing in disguise for Escape Homes. Dobrowolski says he’s seen a surge of interest from people who want to leave the cramped city lifestyle for more open environs. 

“We're targeting people who are priced out of the market, but also people who don't want to live in, say, condominiums,” Dobrowolski says. “People are getting out of cities.” 

A key to the quick success of Escape Tampa Bay Village has been Dobrowolski’s nimble and savvy reading of market conditions. The developer, who says his design aesthetic is heavily influenced by famed architect and Wisconsin native Frank Lloyd Wright, claims he’s “not smart enough” to develop in what he calls “the normal way” — meaning the maximum use of available space. He says he could have doubled the number of units at the Escape Tampa Bay Village but opted to limit the development to just 10, plus a community room in the center of the property that can be used as a work or event space. 

DOWNSIZING MATTERS

Mastic, the new buyer and a 2012 USF graduate, works remotely as a software implementation manager for iCIMS, a talent acquisition company based in New Jersey. He says he’d grown frustrated with rising rents in the area and had been paying $1,600 per month for a one-bedroom apartment in Riverview, south Hillsborough County. Last fall, when his lease ended, Mastic moved in with family members so he could save for a house. 

“I wanted to own something,” Mastic says. “The idea was to save up some money, so if something comes along, I’d be able to jump on it.”

Although he wasn’t looking specifically for a tiny house, Mastic — like many other millennials and young professionals — had been in downsizing mode. At one point, he had owned a house and a second car. But he sold both, along with many other possessions, and moved into the Riverview apartment. 

“I've been downsizing for two years and still feel like I have a lot of stuff,” Mastic says. “I want to pare down even more, but so far, everything fits into my 388 square feet of space.” 

Dobrowolski, who says he first began designing tiny homes in the early 1990s, was aware of the market trends and forces that drive the purchasing decisions of millennials. He priced the Escape units accordingly. 

“We know what the average rent for an apartment is in Tampa,” Dobrowolski says.

Courtesy. Dan Dobrowolski, founder and CEO of Escape Homes.

Escape Tampa Bay Village units range in price from $69,000 to $100,000, plus a monthly lot rental fee of $450-$500 that covers the cost of water and sewer service and garbage and recycling collection. The units, Dobrowolski says, are energy efficient; they use low-voltage LED lighting and some are outfitted with solar panels. He adds that the monthly payment for all units, with the exception of the largest one, which is built on a full-size mobile home chassis, is lower than the region’s average rental cost. 

Empty-nesters and older people — citing a desire to downsize and consume less energy — have also made plenty of inquiries.

“It’s not just millennials and younger folks,” Dobrowolski says, “but older people who are like, ‘I don't need a McMansion.’ A lot of people feel guilty about those kinds of things. Half of their house is empty, yet they’re cooling it and using up all this energy.”  

GREAT WIDE OPEN

Dobrowolski says there will be a second phase of Escape Tampa Bay Village. He’s in the process of acquiring the neighboring trailer park, which sits on a larger, nearly four-acre parcel, and plans to ship more units as soon as the property can be cleared and landscaped and outfitted with new infrastructure. Like the first phase, the second phase will have plenty of open spaces for the new normal imposed by the COVID-19 crisis. 

“It has to feel open and look a certain way,” he says. “It has to look great. It has to give you space. You have to be able to breathe. I just can’t bring myself to stack units in next to each other like sliced bread, like a typical mobile home or RV park. You can do all the infrastructure right and then blow it on the look. You have to make sure it looks right.”

Therein lies another strategic selling point for the Escape Homes approach: a ready-made, purpose-built community for tiny home enthusiasts, who, Dobrowolski says, sometimes struggle to figure out where to place their units. 

“Even if you find a piece of property,” he says, “are you going to have utilities? Are you going to have a pad to put [the unit] on? Is it legal?” 

Brian Hartz. Escape Tampa Bay Village is community of 10 tiny homes plus a work and social event space.

Escape Homes’ communal approach to tiny homes has already worked in Wisconsin, where Dobrowolski created a village at Canoe Bay, a 300-acre resort property he developed. The company has also deployed tiny homes across the country as vacation rental units. Dobrowolski declines to disclose the privately held firm’s revenues and the margin it makes on sales of tiny homes. He says it’s a “fairly lucrative business, but nowhere near what people would think.” 

That’s because of the high standards of the company’s manufacturing process, says Dave Peterson, an Escape Homes employee dispatched to Tampa to get the village up and running. He says each unit has been certified by the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, a process that involves hundreds of quality and safety checks. 

Association inspectors, Peterson says, “come and do random checks at our factory all the time.” The certification isn’t required of tiny home manufacturers like Escape Homes, but he thinks it’s yet another quality that sets the company and its products apart from the competition. 

“We listen to what people want,” Peterson says. 

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