The power of a strong social media presence can be persuasive — in any industry. After fighting opposition over a recent project, a local homebuilder takes that lesson personally.
Local homebuilder Carlos Beruff has found comfort in terms like rezones and comp plan amendments over a 30-year career.
The wonkish approach works: Annual revenues at his firm, Manatee County-based Medallion Home, have increased 74% since 2010, from $32.8 million to $56.9 million last year.
But when it comes to the must-do-it-now technology world of constant tweets and Facebook posts, Beruff, admittedly, is somewhat out of his element. And that, says the developer, is his biggest regret from a recent and highly publicized tussle over a large-scale potential development he's behind.
“If this ever happens again I will have a message out faster,” says Beruff. “I will have a website up much faster. I will have hired a P.R. firm.”
The project at the center of the debate — and Beruff's social media angst — is Long Bar Pointe, a proposed mixed-use development on 463 acres in northwest Bradenton, near Cortez. The original plan called for a 300-room hotel, a 300-berth boat basin/marina, more than 2,500 residences, office and retail space and a conference center. The proposal was modeled loosely after the resort-meets-village vibe at places like WaterColor and Seaside in the Florida Panhandle.
The marina, though, what developers once considered integral to the overall project, has been scuttled. Beruff and his partners, including local developer Larry Lieberman, removed the marina from an official proposal after weeks of debate and pleas from Manatee County commissioners.
The removal paved the way for the commission, after a tense 13-hour public meeting that began at 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 6, to approve a map amendment proposal for the property. The upshot of that vote, and another vote on a separate text amendment proposal, is Beruff and his partners must reapply for a significant portion of the project. Other parts of the development, including 250 homes and 150,000 square feet of retail space, were approved in other hearings long before the meeting.
But another consequence of the debate and subsequent vote, outside the project, is Beruff, who prides himself on his preparation for any meeting, played catch up in the social media war.
Beruff, in fact, was blindsided by an organized and technically savvy opposition. Facebook groups like Save the Manatee County Shoreline, for example, set the social media tone with pointed posts like one, on Aug. 7, that stated, in extra-large font, “The War Has Begun!!” Several other groups and individuals opposed to the project wrote multiple anti-development posts in the weeks before the vote. Others uploaded YouTube videos of Sarasota Bay tours, with descriptions of what they say is at stake.
The opposition-led social media blitz, in at least one aspect, was a success because the project became something of a local cause celÃ¨bre. Indeed, the groups and individuals against the development delivered hundreds of signatures on opposition petitions to commissioners before the meeting. At the actual meeting, many people against the project, from children to seniors, wore “Save Our Bay” T-shirts. Some held large inflatable dolphins.
Matt Bower, the legal administrator for the Luhrsen Law Group in Sarasota, was one of the leaders of the Facebook posts, both individually and on the Save the Manatee County Shoreline page. Bower, who has lobbied state legislators on bills through the law firm, says his approach was to avoid flooding the pages with junk and constant updates. He instead went with a short, but meaningful approach. “This was an issue that was very easy to support,” says Bower, a part-time fishing guide. “It was easy to jump on the bandwagon.”
Manatee County Commissioners, of course, in public and in interviews, say they vote on the facts of a case, not which side has more Twitter friends or Facebook followers. Commissioners nonetheless noticed the increased participation. “I thought social media brought out people who would have never come out,” says Commissioner Carol Whitmore.
Beruff, meanwhile, in an interview with the Business Observer two days after the marathon commission meeting, discussed both his regrets and his future plans for Long Bar Pointe. While he's battled with opposition groups and county officials over projects before, Long Bar Pointe stands out. “It was the toughest one,” he says, “because of all the unnecessary hyperbole created over social media.”
Specifically Beruff is irritated the project proposal was tagged in an environmentally unfriendly light — social media or otherwise.
Opponents, for starters, pointed to mangroves in the bay they say would be destroyed for a marina. “The development itself isn't so troubling,” Longboat Key resident and Sarasota Bay Watch founder Rusty Chinnis says, “but taking out the mangroves and grass flats is way too intense, and no amount of mitigation could ever replace the environmental damage that would be done.”
Manatee County Commissioner John Chappie also voiced environmental concerns. Says Chappie: “I'm concerned with incompatibility with areas to the south of the project and I'm concerned with the incompatibility to the coastal environment.”
Beruff, however, says the argument that he and his partners would wreck the environment for a profitable development is laughable — and nearly impossible. “There's no way on God's green earth we would do something that destroys the environment,” Beruff says. “With all the regulations we would have to go through, we couldn't do that anyway.”
Even with the sunken marina, Beruff considers the Manatee County Commission decisions a 75% victory because it confirms several aspects of the plan. Several commissioners, further, encouraged Beruff to come back with a proposal that's still bold and forward thinking. “We didn't get 100%,” he says, “but we got a triple.”
An Aug. 8 post on the Save the Manatee County Shoreline Facebook page also claims victory. “Now that the dust has settled it is clear that we were at least 75% successful in our quest to get 'NO' votes on the text and map amendments,” the post sates. “The big victory was defeating the text amendment (50%). We didn't defeat the map amendment but taking the 'marina' out was a victory.”
Beruff, moving ahead, is buoyed by the fact that he can be patient with the project because of the portion already approved. That allows for some return on the investment, albeit a small one, while the other parts play out. Beruff and some partners bought the land for $12.3 million in May 2012, when the property, then owned primarily by Lieberman, was headed for a foreclosure auction.
Past that, Beruff says he will take a short vacation before he and his team create another proposal. His vision of a landmark project, something that's not one more subdivision, will remain. “This property is magic,” Beruff says in an interview a week before the Aug. 7 vote. “It's the most spectacular thing to come to Bradenton west of Interstate 75 in 50 years. It's transformational.”
The son of Cuban emigres, Beruff says he won't give up easily on the project. He's shown that stick-it-out side before, in surviving several economic downturns. A Miami native, Beruff has also shown it in his personal life: His family, including his Cuban-born older sister and brother, struggled for several years. They received government-sponsored food every Saturday, and his siblings, his mom, his aunt and some cousins, eight people total, all lived in a two-car converted garage for a few years.
With Long Bar Pointe, though, Beruff's stubbornness is directed toward the dynamic possibilities of the development. Says Beruff: “I've never had a project in my career that I felt so right about.”
Longboat Observer Managing Editor Kurt Schultheis contributed to this story.
Although developer Carlos Beruff laments his lack of social media prowess, his project proposal didn't necessarily lack support. The Gulf Coast Builders Exchange, for instance, a trade association for commercial contractors, ran a pro-Long Bar Pointe development campaign. That included email blasts and a large member presence at the Aug. 6-7 meeting.
“It's a great project for the community, it's great for the environment, and it's great for job creation,” says GCBX Executive Director Mary Dougherty-Slapp. “This would be a boon to our industry.”
Beruff, moreover, took out several half-page and full-page ads in the Bradenton Herald before the meeting. He also had green hats printed with “yes” printed in white. Those hats were distributed at the meeting, so commissioners could easily see supporters wearing them. Beruff says he spent about $150,000 on preparations for the meeting, including consultants, attorneys and hats.