The South Rises

South County Explodes with New Developments and Residents

Sleepy little South County is waking up with a roar.

By Kim Hackett September 8, 2016 Published in the September 2016 issue of Sarasota Magazine

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Going up: A home in WCI’s Sarasota National, one of 33,000 homes that will be built in South County.

For years overshadowed by North Sarasota, sleepy little South County is waking up with a roar. Bulldozers, construction workers and brand-new gated communities cover a swath from S.R. 681 in Nokomis south to Toledo Blade and I-75, just outside the southern North Port city limits. More than 33,000 new residential units are already planned for the decades ahead, bringing an estimated 54,000 newcomers by 2030 and sparking new businesses of every sort. “It’s a place where people want to be,” says Venice Mayor John Holic. “It’s no longer a secret.”

Here’s a look at some of the major projects that will transform the region in the coming years. 

North Port

West Villages

A new city is rising south of Venice, one that will alter South County just as Lakewood Ranch has transformed Manatee County east of I-75 since it was announced 20 years ago. Called the West Villages, the community has a Venice zip code but became part of North Port more than a decade ago when North Port annexed the former Taylor Ranch. The annexed community is separated from North Port’s former northern border by about nine rural miles. But that separation will disappear as the West Villages develops.

Canadian-based Mattamy Homes, North America’s largest privately owned homebuilder, saw the potential to build a city in a growing retirement area and bought thousands of acres for the West Villages several years ago. The company looked at legendary planner John Nolen’s blueprint for downtown Venice, and New Urbanist communities, such as Celebration, for inspiration.

“It’s 9,800 acres within a mile and a half from the beach,” says Marty Black, the West Villages’ general manager (and Venice’s former city manager), who helped Mattamy find the property. “There aren’t many parcels left like that.”

Mattamy will build 23,000 residential units and 3 million square feet of commercial development over the next three decades. The West Villages is a community development district, which can tax residents to build infrastructure. It has a governing body and functions much like its own city. But it’s not just the sheer number of homes that will change North Port. The mammoth development also is aimed at a more affluent market.

“It will be its own brand,” says Ruth Buchanan, North Port’s economic development director. “It’s got a different demographic of mostly younger, more affluent retirees than North Port proper.” North Port has a median age of 40 and a large population of blue-collar workers and middle-income retirees.

So far, 1,000 houses have been built, along with roads, pipelines and other infrastructure. Buyers are coming from Lakewood Ranch, Sarasota and other Florida coastal communities as well as retiring Midwesterners and people from the Northeast.

Construction begins this fall on the district’s first phase of commercial development, a 68,000-square-foot New Urban town square, anchored by a grocery store whose name Mattamy has yet to reveal.

“We are building a destination downtown with streetside parking,” Black says. “It’ll be like four blocks of downtown Venice, with restaurants on the water [a manmade lake], a hotel and retail shops.”

It could also have a major baseball team. Local officials are negotiating with the Atlanta Braves to build a spring training stadium in the West Villages. The proposed campus would have training facilities, practice fields and a 7,500-seat stadium on a 100- to 150-acre site, with direct access to U.S. 41 and West Villages Parkway.

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Venice South

Grand Palm, Sarasota National

Other housing developments near the West Villages are springing up, including Neal Communities’ 2,000-home Grand Palm in east Venice. The $80-million community was the first development approved under the county’s 2050 plan, which seeks to create villages on rural land with walkable, compact neighborhoods and a variety of housing. Located on the southwest corner of Center and River roads, Grand Palm has villas and single-family homes, a recreation center, tennis courts, ball fields, picnic pavilions, dog parks and 28 miles of walking and bike trails. About one-third of the 1,003 acres will be undeveloped. Grand Palm, which broke ground in 2012, is targeting OPALs (older people with active lifestyles), who are 80 percent of Grand Palm buyers. About 57 percent of all buyers are from within Florida. Prices start in the low $200,000s for a single-family home. Build-out is expected in 2026.

About six miles to the west of Grand Palm is WCI’s upscale golf course community Sarasota National, which eventually will include 1,584 single-family homes and villas on 2,400 acres. Homes are priced in the $200,000-$600,000 range. A big draw is the setting. The Audubon Society helped plan the community and preserve land, and the golf course is Audubon-certified.

Venice Island

New Hotels and Tra Ponti Villagio

While growth to the south and east of Venice are getting much of the attention, Venice Island—so named because it is separated from the rest of the city by the Intracoastal Waterway—is also adding new developments and hotels.

The last hotel built in the city limits was a Hampton Inn in 1997. Now three sites on Venice Island are being eyed for hotels: the former Circus Arena site, where two developers have pitched proposals; the site of shuttered Pineapple’s Restaurant on U.S. 41 Business near the entrance to downtown; and the current site of the U.S. Post Office downtown.

One prominent developer has a familiar face. Mike Miller was associated with major projects during the boom years more than a decade ago, including three, eight-story condos along the Intracoastal Waterway. When the market collapsed, many of Miller’s buyers simply walked away. It took years to recover, but today, he says the market is on stronger footing and the buyers are different. “We’re getting almost all-cash buyers,” he says.

Miller’s current projects include Tra Ponti Villagio, 23 homes priced between $600,000 and $1 million near the Intracoastal Waterway and the Venice Avenue Bridge. He’s also building the first condo project on the island in a decade, Che Vista, with 15 homes across the Esplanade from Venice Beach, with three floors over a garage. Those homes will sell for $670,000.

And Miller is one of two bidding to develop a hotel on the former Circus Arena site.

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Tra Ponti Villagio will have 23 homes near the Intracoastal Waterway and the Venice Avenue Bridge. 

City of Venice

Villages of Milano, Bellacina, the Hammocks

The city of Venice’s growth epicenter is in the Jacaranda Boulevard and East Laurel Road area, which the post office calls North Venice. Neal Communities has two new communities: Villages of Milano and The Woods with about 1,000 planned homes.

The newly expanded Honore Extension, which provides an I-75 alternate route from Pinebrook and Laurel roads north to Sarasota, also has spawned new communities. Taylor Morrison’s Bellacina by Casey Key will bring 302 houses; and the Hammocks, the southernmost Palmer Ranch development at the end of Bee Ridge Road, is expanding south to Honore to include about 400 single-family homes and villas. All these new houses will create a seamless community along the southernmost Honore Extension between Palmer Ranch and Venice.

Venice’s Retail Hub

Jacaranda Junction

Not all the growth is residential. At Jacaranda Junction, which broke ground in June, a Wawa and Culver’s are the first businesses committed to what is expected to be 300,000 square feet of retail along Jacaranda Boulevard from Executive Drive to East Venice Avenue.

Agent Loyd Robbins, who is marketing the property for Jacaranda Junction LLC., a group of local investors, says the development is also pursuing upscale grocers such as Whole Foods, Fresh Market and Trader Joe’s.

Robbins, a lifelong Venice resident who has worked in real estate here for 45 years, says the area is ripe for more upscale retail, including on Venice Island, where he sees the downtown district becoming a “a mini St. Armands.”

“Venice is just a very strong market,” he says. “People are understandably attracted to the accessibility to the beaches and water. The prices are reasonable compared to many other areas.”

The biggest challenge, Robbins says, will be traffic. River Road, for example, has long been viewed as dangerously inadequate, and the thousands of new homes coming to the nearby West Villages will only exacerbate the problem. “River Road is a disaster that should have been addressed years ago,” Robbins says.

North Port

Heron Creek

With a half-million square feet of commercial projects in various stages of development in North Port, Sarasota County’s largest municipality is also becoming a business magnet.

The New Urban development of Heron Creek will give North Port a real downtown, with shops, restaurants and offices, something sorely lacking ever since North Port was created by General Development Corp in the late 1950s.

The Heron Creek Towne Center is a planned 40-acre mixed-use development, with above-the-store residences, similar to downtown Venice, and sidewalks lined with restaurants and shops. The new community will connect to North Port’s municipal campus, which functions like a town square. The campus is home to City Hall, the police and fire departments, the post office and the George Mullen Community Center and its vast park, where sports teams compete and the community holds many of its festivals. “It’s going to give us a Main Street,” says economic development director Buchanan.

North Port

Cocoplum Plaza

North Port’s retail scene dramatically changed when Benderson Development opened its 375,000-square-foot Cocoplum Plaza in 2012. Before then, residents had to travel to neighboring Venice and Port Charlotte to do most of their national retail shopping and dining. Now, the city has a Hobby Lobby, Ross, TJ Maxx, Panera and about three dozen other stores and restaurants. Cocoplum is the largest strip plaza between Fort Myers and Sarasota, according to Benderson. “It’s a growth success story,” says Mark Chait, Benderson’s leasing director. “All the stores there are doing very well.”

Benderson has invested in several South County retail centers, mostly redeveloping existing centers, including Jacaranda Plaza in Venice, home to LA Fitness, Bonefish Grill, First Watch and a dozen other businesses.

North Port

Suncoast Technical College

One of the challenges southern Sarasota County faces is providing a trained workforce to meet the needs of rapid growth. Suncoast Technical College, which began in 1967 as Sarasota County Vocational Training Center, plans to open a campus in North Port next year, training students for a variety of careers. The extension will be built in phases, with the first stage to include a business conference center, a public library and the Suncoast Technical College’s Culinary Program.

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A rendering of Suncoast Technical College opening next year in North Port. 

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