Blame it on Wilson Alvarez. Three years ago, the Devil Rays pitcher was the first to build a million-dollar-plus home in Lakewood Ranch-the master-planned community east of I-75 that just a decade ago was a flat, scrubby landscape dotted with hot, motionless cows. Soon, other folks hunting for the perfect place to build a dream castle took the plunge, building Mediterranean, Georgian and French country-style mansions-the kind that once were associated only with Florida’s precious waterfront-that crossed over that magic million-dollar mark.
"People thought, ‘Hey, if he can do that so can we,’" says Marty Garcia, vice president of sales in Manatee County for custom homebuilder Arthur Rutenberg/M. Pete McNabb, Inc., which is building many of these expensive homes.
For old-time Sarasotans or folks who don’t venture east of the interstate very often (because they think there’s nothing out there), the transformation is shocking. Florida scrub has been tamed into a well-groomed causeway bordered by a white picket fence and a landscaped median with a big stone sign that says, "Welcome to Lakewood Ranch." Just beyond is a community of thousands with shopping, offices, hotels and restaurants-even a stoplight-that wasn’t there seven years ago. Just as astounding, many of those residents are-well-rich. The cars tell the story. A steady stream of Lexuses, Jaguars and BMW SUVs packed with kids drive east now instead of west toward the water when they pull off I-75′s University Parkway exit.
When Lakewood Ranch’s developer (SMR) began building homes in 1995, its first "village" was Summerfield, a community of starter homes beginning at about $80,000. Then the developer opened up three "estate" neighborhoods, where homes began at $500,000. Today 20 homes have been sold for a million-plus dollars, and more of those are being built, adorned with brick paver courtyard entrances with trickling fountains, "grand" rooms with 24-foot ceilings, second-floor media rooms, marble master baths of Roman proportions, and kitchen islands as big as double beds.
"Every three months the houses are that much larger," says Jeff Boyd, managing executive for Manatee County Northern Trust, which has an office in Lakewood Ranch. "Prices and size keep increasing. It’s a little staggering."
Even the presence of Northern Trust shows that there is wealth in them there former pastures. Northern Trust caters to high-asset individuals in Florida and does a lot of analysis before it builds an office. Yes, it was a little tricky convincing the head executives that Lakewood Ranch really would be a lucrative market when there were cows grazing nearby, but Boyd says the decision to locate there has more than paid off. "We anticipated a couple of years of lean times, but within three months we broke even and we’ve been adding staff way ahead of schedule."
Claritas, a firm that’s a national expert in demographic profiling, recently noted that Lakewood Ranch’s zip code (also shared with University Park Country Club) contained 5,400 millionaire households in 2001 ("liquid" millionaires, not "asset" millionaires), up by almost a thousand from the year before. "That’s radical!" says Boyd, who attributes much of the increase to Lakewood Ranch residents. "Analysts are predicting that through 2006 there will be a 13-percent increase in the number of millionaire households in this zip code."
Who are Lakewood Ranch’s well-heeled residents? They fall into two categories, say realtors and builders: younger, active retirees-55 and up-and young families. There is also a smattering of sports figures. Besides Alvarez, New York Mets left fielder Roger Cedeno, Minnesota Twins pitcher Joe Mays, Green Bay Packers defensive back Tyrone Williams and sportscaster Dick Vitale (who is building a mammoth 17,000-square-foot home in Lakewood Ranch’s Portmarnock neighborhood) have recently bought there.
John Cannon, president of John Cannon Homes, says about 50 percent of his buyers at Lakewood Ranch are from Sarasota communities "like Prestancia and the waterfront," and the other half comes from all over Florida and out of state.
In part, these affluent residents are lured to Lakewood Ranch because it’s one of the few places in Sarasota where they can buy a brand-new, luxury home with all the bells and whistles at a price that seems like a steal compared to a new home on the water. "A million dollars on the waterfront gets you a teardown," says Cannon, whose furnished model "The Nariah" in Portmarnock is listed for $2.8 million. "My model on the waterfront would be $5 to $6 million."
And in a period when real estate investment seems like a better bet than the stock market, there’s also the thought that waterfront property appreciation is slowing down while Lakewood Ranch property values will continue to escalate rapidly. A $3, $4 or $5-million-dollar home has a limited number of buyers, Cannon explains, while a $1.5 million home almost has a waiting list-which helps to drive prices higher.
And prices are rising. In 1998, the average new home sale in Lakewood Ranch was $232,529; today it’s $358,488. Software manufacturer Chris Hill, a recent transplant from outside of Philadelphia, came to Lakewood Ranch to look around and immediately put a deposit on a lot just a couple of doors down from Alvarez’s mega-mansion before his pregnant wife had even visited the area. He didn’t see it as a big risk. "The lot appreciated in 30 days and so did the model," he says. "This wasn’t an impulse buy, it was a business buy."
Lakewood Ranch is also being advertised heavily in the Naples area, where luxury home prices are significantly higher. "Naples buyers see that they can get twice as much home for their dollar in Lakewood Ranch," says luxury homebuilder Brian Pruett of Pruett Builders.
The other reason for Lakewood Ranch’s attraction to affluent buyers is that it is "a complete package," says Cannon. It’s near I-75 and both the Tampa International Airport and the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport. It’s got five-foot-wide sidewalks so kids can ride their bikes. It has golf courses, an athletic club, shopping and Chinese takeout-all without driving onto University Parkway. It also has good public schools-Braden River Elementary and Middle schools, Lakewood Ranch High School and nearby private Out-of-Door Academy.
"Everything is laid out," says Hill, whose 8,200-square-foot home is almost ready for his wife and two children to move into. "It’s simple and convenient. There’s one church of every kind within five minutes. There’s a strip mall with a grocery store, florist, Mailboxes Etc., Hallmark and dry cleaner. Nothing’s a big drive. Where I was from, even driving two miles could be a big deal."
More recently, a Holiday Inn has opened at Lakewood Ranch and a Marriott Fairfield Inn and Suites will be finished in December. The restaurants First Watch and J. Ryans are serving customers. Manatee Memorial is opening a 120-bed hospital and a 60,000 square-foot medical office building is being built. On the drawing table is a tony retail district of boutique shops and eateries billed as Lakewood Ranch’s "little St. Armands," expected to be finished in 2003.
The upscale market has been such a winner that Lisa Rubinstein, director of public relations for Lakewood Ranch, says SMR "will continue to offer this product," meaning million-dollar neighborhoods, until the community is built out in 2008 or 2010. The developer is also looking at providing even larger lots to satisfy the demand for luxury homes.
Alvarez, the Devil Rays pitcher who broke the million-dollar barrier at Lakewood Ranch, says he and his wife Daihanna never meant to start a trend. "We just wanted to build a house where we were going to be happy," he says.