Taking it Slow and Steady, Homebuilders Stay Active

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- No developer is immune to the current downtrend in new housing, not even Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, the group behind the 8,500-acre Lakewood Ranch. But that's OK because no one really is in a big hurry to get it finished.

"I don't think any of us will be around by the time it's done anyway," said Milt Flinn, president of LWR Communities LLC, the residential subsidiary of Schroeder-Manatee. "It's been 10 years to get to this point, and at this pace, it will probably be another 40 years before we see it all finished."

A long-term view
More than 1,000 homes were built at the peak of the project's development in 2005, but last year the number was close to about 250, Flinn said. Even with that, Lakewood Ranch has still averaged about 600 homes each year for the last dozen years, and builders have no interest in pulling out anytime soon.

"We meet with all of them every quarter to go through any issues they might have," Flinn said. "We found builders that really want to do a good job, and they take a lot of pride in what they do. We get calls all the time from builders wanting to be a preferred builder here, but we only take the best."

Pat Neal, the founder of Neal Communities of Bradenton, calls Lakewood Ranch the center of the universe.

"Ninety percent of all new homebuyers who come to Sarasota or Manatee come to Lakewood Ranch," said Neal, who has already built 640 homes in the project and has land to build another 300.
Neal has controlled a lot of his land in Lakewood Ranch for years, which has allowed him to bring down home prices by between 30 and 35 percent from July 2005 but still come out on top. Because of that, Neal had 33 sales in March and plans to sell 230 homes in 2008.

"And we're on schedule," he said.

John Cannon Homes of Sarasota has built just 300 homes in Lakewood Ranch over the last decade, selling homes ranging in price from $500,000 upward to $4 million. The average selling price, however, is a little more than $300,000, which allows the community to attract all kinds of buyers, something that's attractive to builders.

Schroeder-Manatee "wants to make sure there is a proper mix of housing type and a proper mix of price points," said John Cannon, president of John Cannon Homes. "They are very stringent on architectural guidelines, and they will let a deal go if they feel it compromises the integrity of the community."

Nothing changes
It's not about making the fast buck. With an overall plan measured in decades rather than months or even years, Schroeder-Manatee has focused on creating communities, not subdivisions, LWR's Flinn said. That means building as many schools as possible that children can actually walk to. And with every school comes a neighboring 12-acre park for soccer games, pavilions and other community activities.

"It's in the heart of the community, so it just makes sense," Flinn said. "We're kind of unique in other ways, too. We have 2,000 heads of cattle here, and 2,000 acres of citrus trees, and we're still an operating ranch. We have bunkhouses and cowboys, you name it."

When the housing market starts to trend upward again, Lakewood Ranch will be the first to benefit, Flinn said.

"All the reasons that people wanted to live here [during the housing boom] have not changed," he said. "They may not be lining up as fast as they did before, but they'll keep coming."

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