When home builders are asked which information they deem most critical to the improvement of their businesses, info about new products is always near the top of the list. And for good reason.
Behemoth Bags Buyers
Ten years of planning and entitlement work went into Lakewood Ranch's master-planned communityin Southwest Florida.
|10,000-square foot fitness center is one of Lakewood Ranch’s attractions. Photo: Dick Dickenson.
Master-planned communities are taking an increasing share of residential markets across the country, and the reasons for their success are easy to see at Lakewood Ranch in Southwest Florida.
Visitors to either of two information centers can peruse ten (or more) years of future development displayed in a scale model, and envision for themselves the impact that is likely to have on the value of a new home bought this year.
|Arnold Palmer-designed Legacy Golf Club (right) features a 6000-square foot clubhouse, shown in the distance from the 18th fairway. Photo: Henebry Photography
Planning for the 5500-acre development--part of the 28,000-acre Schroeder-Manatee Ranch land holding along I-75, straddling the border between Sarasota and Manatee Counties--began in the early 1980s. Ground was broken in 1994, and the first entry-level housing product hit the market in 1995. At first, it looked like just another subdivision. But from the very beginning, Lakewood Ranch was marketed as a unified whole--a new town with carefully planned places to live, go to school, work, play, and shop.
Slowly at first, then with greater rapidity, infrastructure and amenities fell into place, and people began to notice--home builders as well as buyers. "Since 1996, the change in our visitor surveys has been remarkable," says SMR Communities VP of Marketing Jim Doyle. "Suddenly, ‘master-planned community’ emerged as something our visitors are looking for, a reason to buy a new home, every bit as strong as ‘job transfer’ or ‘retirement.’"
"From 1996 on, it became a completely different dynamic. Of course, during that time frame, we became much more of an MPC in what we were delivering to home buyers. We now have market-segmented villages with product ranging from under $100,000 to over $1 million. And we’ve got an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course and 10,000 square-foot fitness center to go with the parks, lakes, and bike trails."
|1635-square foot Willowbrook model by Bruce Williams Homes is one of the more affordable homes available in Summerfield Crest neighborhood. It sells for $131,300. Photo: Jack Elka
In 1996, American Metro/Study re-ported Lakewood Ranch with 211 housing starts, an 8% share of the Sarasota-Bradenton metro housing market. By 1998, the researchers showed Lakewood Ranch with 472 starts, a 12% market share. And in the first quarter of this year, the community recorded 152 starts, a 13% share of market, with sales clipping along at a rate to reach 543 starts by year-end.
"When people come into the housing market now--for whatever reason--they come to see us," says Doyle. "They’re curious about what we have that may be different from what they’ve known. They want to see our plan. They want us to explain how it works. It becomes a huge selling point."
What they find is planned development on a huge scale. Summerfield, the original, affordable village at the northern edge of Lakewood Ranch, for instance, has 14 separate neighborhoods totalling 1500 single-family homes. "We projected build-out there by 2004," says Doyle. "But we’ll be out of there next year."
|Lee Wetherington’s 2620-square foot, $317,900 Madrid model, foreground, graces a streetscape in Augusta neighborhood at Country Club village. Photo: Dick Dickenson
There’s no centralized sales operation. The information centers’ primary role is to direct visitors to the price point they seek among 25 model presentations (42 homes) operated by 16 builders. But the information centers do more than hand out maps. They collect data that helps Lakewood Ranch plan future product.
"We don’t sell anything," says Doyle. "We’re there to disseminate and collect information, and we get 98% participation in our registration program. We get 200 registrations a week. Our current database is about 11,500 names."
Lakewood Ranch is now the most powerful force in the Sarasota-Bradenton market. Doyle and former SMR Communities president Roger Postlethwaite (who recently moved on to become CEO of LandMar Group in Jacksonville) used that position to multiply the ranch’s power. They developed a "community sponsors" program that gains special benefits to home buyers from major corporations serving the ranch, including General Electric, Time-Warner, and G.T.E.
"For instance, G.E. gets access to our home buyers through the program, but we get something as well--special pricing, extended warranties at no cost to our buyers, model home appliances and marketing programs for our builders, and for every sale G.E. makes, they contribute a percentage to help fund our community programs office, which creates everything from bridge clubs to golf leagues."
|Pruett Builders’ Villa Florencia model--in St. Georges neighborhood at Country Club village--is 3609 square feet, priced at $347,800. Photo: Terry Schank
Time-Warner provides a minimum of four cable TV drops in each home at no cost to buyers, and also provides a Lakewood Ranch channel to speed ranch communications with residents.
Now, after four years of concentration on building residential neighborhoods and recreational amenities, Lakewood Ranch is kicking into high gear on commercial and retail development. The 1273-acre corporate park and 500-acre town center are in full swing. Almost overnight, construction has begun on two dozen commercial sites--including facilities for three telecommunications companies, five banks, and three home builders. More than 580,000 square feet of office and light industrial space are slated for construction starts this summer and fall. -B.L.
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