Bathers at Warm Mineral Springs in North Port

Image: Sean Salyards

I take back everything I ever said about North Port. And I’ve said some bad things. I once called it “creepy” and “the perfect place to dump a body.” Please forgive me, North Port. Now I’m thinking of moving in with you.

What’s made the difference? North Port has finally come into its own.  It used to be enormous and spooky, with mile after mile of empty, potholed streets. Well, the vast scale is still there, but it’s filling up. You actually see houses, shopping has improved dramatically, and big plans are in the air—a spring training facility for the Atlanta Braves, a community water park, and most telling of all, a brand-new Fuccillo Kia dealership, the largest in Florida. To quote the fat guy, “It’s gonna be huuuuge!”

Let’s hope, though, that North Port doesn’t lose the qualities that make it North Port. Things like….

Russians! If you want to see a bunch of Russians in the flesh, there’s no need to attend a meeting in Trump Tower. Just go to North Port, where you’ll see hundreds of them dog-paddling in a great big circle around Warm Mineral Springs.

Actually, most of them are Ukrainians, but this group of Slavic expats accounts for 5 percent of the population. Per capita, North Port is the largest Ukrainian city in the country.

Thermal springs are a great tradition in Eastern Europe, and Warm Mineral Springs is one of the best in the world. It has more minerals than the periodic table, and the water flowing up from below is said to be a million years old. Many historians believe it was the original Fountain of Youth that Ponce de Leon was searching for.

You can spend the weekend at the Warm Mineral Springs Motel, a classic from the 1950s designed by famed Sarasota architect Victor Lundy. And check out International Food at 13201 Tamiami Trail. It’s a great Russian deli with homemade cakes and bread, sausages, salads, etc.

Strange Street Names! Whenever I drive around North Port I find myself fascinated by the street names. Granted, there are plenty of Elms and Maples, but many of the names sound like randomly connected syllables: Flamlau, Sargon, Londel, Aldovin. I guess the problem was they just had too many streets—104 square miles worth. You can also tell which ones were named during Happy Hour: Chiffon, Bula and Aba Lane.

There’s No Downtown! People keep asking, where is North Port’s downtown? Well, it doesn’t have one. It was designed that way.

This was back in 1954. The General Development Corporation bought 80,000 acres of land—for $2.5 million—and platted a city of 50,000 lots called North Port Charlotte. (City residents voted to change its name to North Port in 1974.) The famous empty streets were built, along with 95 miles of freshwater drainage canals. There was no provision for a central downtown area—just houses. It was more of a lot-selling scheme than an actual development, and when sales fizzled out the impractical infrastructure sat there pretty much empty for the next 40 years.

Today no one would design a community like North Port. They’d put in all the necessary things like shopping areas, recreation—like Lakewood Ranch.

It’s always been North Port’s challenge to find a way around its flawed design, and it’s finally starting to happen. The entrances to the city off the interstate have been gussied up, and the strip malls that line Tamiami Trail have been glamorized as well. Now you’ll find excellent everyday shopping (Target, Lowes, Walmart) and a very nice Goodwill.

Just One House! There’s only one house in North Port, and you see it repeated endlessly. The town may have the least diverse architecture of any place in the world.

Luckily, it’s a great house.

It has three bedrooms and two baths and a two-car garage. The square footage ranges from 1,200 to just over 2,000. It has a smattering of special features, such as a vaulted ceiling in the living room, an open kitchen, and a big master bath with a garden tub and a separate shower. The entrance is invariably overscaled, with pillars supporting a semi-grandiose porch.

The beauty of the North Port house is that it fits just about any situation. Perfect for a retired couple or a family just starting out, it will also suit a single person or even a larger family as long as they get a couple of bunk beds. These homes start well under $200,000 and go up to around $260,000 for the deluxe version with a pool. Let city planners and politicians fret over affordable housing. North Port already has it, and it’s all based on good old American free enterprise.

Great Trailer Parks! A city’s trailer parks can tell you a lot about its character, and North Port has the nicest in the area. Of course, they’re not called trailer parks.  They’re manufactured home communities.

Several (mostly gated) border on the Myakka River: La Casa, Harbor Isles, Harbor Cove, Riverwalk, etc. These are top-of-the-line examples of their kind: beautifully tended, with late model homes set reasonably far apart, some facing pretty water views. Clubhouse and activities are excellent, and the atmosphere has style. The sense of peace and security—and respectability—is all but overwhelming. You can get a nice place for under $150,000, with monthly fees of just over $100. If your retirement fund is anything like mine, you might want to take a serious look at this option.

My Favorite Restaurants! These days you’ll find all the chains necessary for daily life (Panera, Five Guys, Perkins and First Watch), but don’t despair. There are still a couple of old-timers, like Olde World and Family Table that hover between “diner” and “special occasion.” They also function as civic centers of a sort, with meetings and parties and entertainment on weekends. And for a great Old Florida seafood place on the water, check out the Myakka River Oyster Bar. Things are a little fried here for a purist’s taste, but I love the view and atmosphere.

Big Changes Coming! North Port is on the verge of a big change that will alter its future forever. New developer-built communities are going up all around the edges. The enormous empty stretch between North Port and Venice is now called West Villages. It will contain thousands of homes, enough to make North Port one of the fastest-growing regions in the country.

On one hand, these places will continue North Port’s tradition of offering great value. Homes start in the mid-$200,000s and most will be around $350,000.

But to me these new places are not really North Port. It still has 40,000 empty lots. The typical home is still likely to be the only one on the block, set on a quarter-acre of land carved out of a dense pine forest.

The other day, while I was driving down Corvette Lane, something ran across the road. It was the size of a German shepherd but had the head of a cat. What was it? A bobcat, I imagine. They’re the mascots at North Port High. And a reminder of the strange and slightly primeval mix that makes North Port its own unique self. 

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