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Business Observer Thursday, Jun. 25, 2020 1 year ago

Homebuilder adds master-planned communities to portfolio

Having grown up building homes for one of the region’s more prolific builders, John Neal now has a new mission: to build communities.  
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Pat and John Neal are known as some of the more astute and shrewd land buyers on the west coast of Florida. Their multitude of deals, not just in price but also in market knowledge and understanding zoning nuances, are one of the reasons Neal Communities has survived five economic downturns over 50 years.  

'We started looking around and thought we could do a better job with this. We wanted to do something that wasn’t just another subdivision.' John Neal

Yet, in an "You’re only as good as your next deal" mantra, all that success mattered little back in 2008. That’s when John Neal, Pat Neal’s son, led a deal with longtime business partners Charles Varah and Colin Pasold to buy about 1,200 acres in north Manatee County, in Parrish, for about $8 million. Parrish back then was a mostly rural, sleepy bedroom community —  with lots of room for more bedrooms. “I wasn’t sure if we were playing smart or were playing dumb,” John Neal says, 12 years later. “There was just nothing out there.”

What’s there now is North River Ranch. In total, it’s a 2,600-acre master planned community that John Neal’s company, Neal Land & Neighborhoods, is developing. North River Ranch, going out 20 years, has space for some 6,000 homes, more than 700 acres of preserved wetland/conservation, lakes and parks and multiple schools. With the Neal family eye for details, place-making and sense of community, the goal is to turn North River Ranch into a front-porch style, throwback community, where kids fish and ride bikes and people walk about. “We’re building a real experience and building a hometown,” Neal Land & Neighborhoods Marketing Director Janice Snow says.

Courtesy. John Neal recently shifted the focus and model of Neal Land & Neighborhoods.

North River Ranch, along with Neal Land & Neighborhoods, which recently rebranded from the name Neal Land Ventures, also represents an enhanced branch of the Neal family of companies. Neal Land & Neighborhoods isn’t a subsidiary of Neal Communities, though it does, like a few other separate-but-connected entities, pay Neal Communities for centralized services, such as accounting and human resources.

Neal Land & Neighborhoods’ mission, John Neal says, is to incorporate smart master-planning and public infrastructure policies to build communities that go beyond a traditional Florida cookie-cutter neighborhood. That’s the plan with both an unnamed 300-acre tract the company controls in Venice, as well as North River Ranch. On the latter, Neal says he originally was going to do all the entitlements then flip it. “But we started looking around and thought we could do a better job with this,” he says. “We wanted to do something that wasn’t just another subdivision.”

All told, Neal Land & Neighborhoods owns or controls several thousand acres entitled for more than 9,000 future residential homes and supporting mixed-use commercial and retail in Sarasota and Manatee counties. To build master-planned communities that go a step above others in Florida, and in shifting the business model, Neal says one of his first moves was to bring in some leading industry veterans.

One recent hire is Tom Panaseny, now vice president of land development. Panaseny has planned and developed more than 12,500 homesites in Florida over a 30-year career, including Fishhawk Ranch in Hillsborough County and Bexley in Pasco County. Snow, meanwhile, has overseen marketing for several communities in the region and was most recently with Tampa-based Homes by WestBay.

The focus of the team’s work of late, slowed a bit by the coronavirus pandemic, has been North River Ranch. Panaseny notes its location off Moccasin Wallow Road and U.S. 301 between Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota, with easy access to Interstate 75, is a big asset. “When we were building Fishhawk Ranch 25 years ago,” he says. “It was 7 miles off I-75, and people said: ‘What are you doing? Are you crazy?' And this is only 3 miles east of 75.”

Construction is underway on the first of six phases, with more than 900 homes planned across two neighborhoods, Brightwood and Riverfield. Home prices will range from $200,000 to $400,000 and will start at about 1,400 square feet to more than 3,200 square feet. Builders include David Weekley Homes, KB Home, Homes by WestBay, Centex, Park Square Homes and, of course, Neal Communities. Neal recognizes the unusual element of owning the community and having the other Neal business build homes in it. “Neal Communities is our closest and best customer, and we will never separate from that,” Neal says. “But we also have other builders we work with.”

Courtesy. Construction is underway on the first of six phases at North River Ranch.

Demand has been strong in the early going, even with people not checking out open houses like they did before the pandemic. About 30 homes have been sold so far. Buyers are doing online virtual tours in some cases, and at any showings, cleaning and social distancing protocols are in place.

“Considering the majority of these home sales occurred before the community had model homes formally open for viewing, we’re extremely encouraged by these sales,” Neal says. “We believe there’s really been a need in this market, and I’m really excited about this community.”

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