Surrounded by project managers, golf legends Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin hovered over blueprints spread out on the hood of a sport utility vehicle. Developer Kevin Daves pointed toward a gap in the wilderness and described for guests the route of a meandering stream. Real estate magnate Michael Saunders stood nearby and spoke of being awestruck as she toured the property.
The key players for arguably the most impressive real estate collaboration in the area's history had gathered about eight miles east of I-75 on S.R. 70, the north side of The Concession, one of three upscale golf course communities scheduled to open in the next 18 months. With every load of dirt moved, every glossy brochure distributed, this posh trio is pushing Sarasota and Manatee counties closer to the lifestyle realm occupied by the country's exclusive golf destinations.
A couple miles east of I-75, off Fruitville Road, The Founders Club continues to take shape and set the pace for a stunning, three-pronged transformation in levels of luxury. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., the course is expected to be ready for play by year's end. The Concession, with Nicklaus and Jacklin as architects, should be finished by next summer. Next, the Ritz-Carlton has planned a Tom Fazio layout off Lorraine Road, just south of the Braden River, for fall of 2005.
At $75,000, membership at The Founders and The Concession more than doubles the cost to join other upscale clubs in the area. The Ritz-Carlton course breaks ground this summer and figured to set membership prices and daily fees for hotel guests that were in line with its neighbors.
Indeed, the stakes and amenities are as high-powered as the reputations behind these projects. A few years ago, who could have pictured Nicklaus, the greatest player ever, and Jacklin, a fellow member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, along with Ritz-Carlton co-developer Daves and real estate visionary Saunders assembled under the same tent in a far-eastern Manatee County field?
Saunders, her trademark scarf flowing in the breeze, was moved to a metaphor as she gazed at what will become The Concession. A rural beauty stretched toward the afternoon horizon, pine trees and oak hammocks, palmetto bushes and wetlands creating a mural of what Florida has looked like for centuries.
"I feel like a pioneer out here," she said.
This, of course, is uncharted territory. And it's only the beginning, as developers target a wealthy niche market with carefully engineered golf communities designed to preserve the land and feed the demand of aging baby boomers searching for an amenity-laden lifestyle.
"Actually, it's overdue," says Tom Brown of U.S. Assets Group, developer of The Founders. "Sarasota is just coming into its own, and has a far greater potential than, say, Naples or other parts of Florida."
A study by Brown's company that analyzed the Naples area found 25 golf clubs with approximately 9,000 people who paid from $75,000 to $260,000 for their memberships. Brown also recalls working projects in Vero Beach, where five clubs had fees beginning at $100,000, and hearing of members who had looked first in Sarasota.
"They wanted these upscale environments here and had to go elsewhere," Brown says.
Much like the condominium boom in downtown Sarasota, a spillover from other parts of Florida's west coast has been in the works for several years. For example, as competition between clubs increased and available land decreased, Naples had nowhere to grow; and developers looked elsewhere, leap-frogging Fort Myers and Lee County and landing squarely on Sarasota's highly coveted affluent demographic.
Such possibilities piqued Nicklaus' interest, and he quickly did his homework after being approached by Daves. A longtime resident of Palm Beach County, Nicklaus views the Sarasota area as the next golf hotbed. He and Jacklin not only put their names on The Concession course, they signed up as investors, too, and each already owns adjoining lots.
"When you get fast-growth areas," Nicklaus says, "the idea is to build the best mousetrap that you can. You get the people to come because you created something special."
Although growth has been spectacularly sudden, it's taken time and patience. Methodically planned quality, not fast-paced quantity, and patience with the minuet of the permit process so far have been observed. The Founders has been in the making five years as U.S. Assets balanced its needs with compliance with county requirements. Meanwhile, density restrictions east of I-75 were eventually loosened and things moved forward.
"The county finally recognized that the large-acre sites are really an inefficient use of land that requires a lot of roads and extension of utilities that are very expensive," Brown says.
Although their companies are competitors, Brown and Daves agree that Sarasota will become a world-class golf destination, much like a Palm Desert, Calif., or Scottsdale, Ariz., with room for several more projects. Daves, president of Core Development, made that bet when he helped bring the Ritz-Carlton to Sarasota, which three years later has proved a major factor in the staggering surge in property values.
Nationally, Sarasota and Manatee counties had the second largest jump in median single-family home prices for the fourth quarter of 2003, rising 26.1 percent to $222,100. Only the Riverside-San Bernardino area, located an hour or so due east of Los Angeles, had a bigger jump in price.
The Concession, The Founders or the Ritz-Carlton won't draw customers in that price range, but they force a gravitational pull upward. The 255 homes at The Concession range from $1.5 to $1.7 million (annual golf membership dues are expected to be around $9,000). For the 262 homes at The Founders, prices are between $700,000 and $3 million (annual golf dues will be about $7,000).
Just being in the same neighborhood should lift real estate prices at the Ritz-Carlton course before lots are even staked. Residents of the Ritz-Carlton condos will be first in line for golf memberships, and hotel guests will be allowed to play for daily fees (cost: an estimated $200-plus). Otherwise, details are still in the planning stages.
So what amenities can one expect for that kind of coin? A gilded golf experience, to be sure, with immaculately trimmed fairways and amazingly smooth greens, plush pro shop carpets, polished marble hole markers, richly carved hardwood lockers, resort-like service.and the cachet of just being able to play and live there. Let the imagination flow as fast as homeowners already seem to be spending money on upgrades such as disappearing-edge pools and mosaic tile designs.
"We have more than an abundance of people in our market range," Daves says. "We're in a better position than other parts of Florida. We're attracting people from the Tampa-St. Petersburg area. Some are coming up from Naples. We have a population base where we can have 20 or so great golf courses here."
It seems ambitious, but Daves adds: "You have three great golf clubs being built, and between the three of them, you'll have about 900 people as members. About 900 people land here every day just looking to play golf."
They have come to play and buy for decades. Golf and real estate have been linked from the start, wedded since 1886, when John Hamilton Gillespie, Sarasota's first mayor, cleared two holes behind his home, near the present downtown Post Office building. In the '20s, storied amateur golfer Bobby Jones moonlighted as the assistant sales manager for the real estate office at Whitfield Estates, which was built around Sara Bay Country Club.
In the '80s, The Oaks Club set the standard with its marketing slogan, "The Art of Fine Living" and established a market for expensive golf memberships. The Tournament Players Club at Prestancia established a PGA Tour facility here. In the '90s, Laurel Oak, a Gary Player design, helped change the membership game, pushing prices above $25,000. University Park opened the gates east, before The Legacy at Lakewood Ranch, an Arnold Palmer effort, blazed the upscale trail past I-75.
Still, the game itself isn't necessarily the driving force behind golf course communities. Not every homeowner whose Florida rooms face carpet-like fairways or artistically shaped greens even owns a set of clubs. (Does everybody with a waterfront view have a boat docked out back?) As fast as Sarasota's lifestyle ascends into luxury, that well-worn axiom of real estate-location, location, location-applies more than ever.
"The high-end real estate is indicative of Sarasota's place in the market overall," Brown says. "We're just scratching the surface."
The trend points toward more upscale communities, too. As land becomes scarce, some older courses might be in jeopardy. In the past year, developers have talked of digging up Sarasota Golf Club, Village Green, Palma Sola and North Port golf clubs in favor of residential developments. The owners of Forest Lakes, laid out among the old citrus groves along Beneva Road in 1964, hope to build condos overlooking the course near a newly constructed clubhouse.
A widely cited study last December by two Florida State University professors, David A. Macpherson and G. Stacy Sirmans, showed that buyers spend eight percent more for a house facing at least part of a golf course. With 90 or so courses from Palmetto to Englewood, that's a built-in premium for land that surely impacts neighbors across the street and beyond.
Add the design reputations of Nicklaus, Fazio and Trent Jones Jr., and that figure easily climbs into double-digit growth.
Those names alone elevate The Founders, The Concession and the Ritz-Carlton course to prominence even before the last bulldozer leaves the property. Nicklaus and Fazio each have six layouts ranked in Golf Digest magazine's America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses for 2003-04. Trent Jones Jr., whose father is considered one of the best course architects of all time, has one listed.
"It makes Sarasota a destination for golf," Daves says. "If you talked about that with Ritz-Carlton people, you'd hear the same thing, that there's room for other great hotels."
As Saunders joined Nicklaus and Daves at an impromptu press conference amid the palmetto bushes of east Manatee County, she pondered two familiar questions, the same ones Daves often heard about the Ritz-Carlton. Having started Michael Saunders & Company from scratch 28 years ago, she might be the definitive observer of the mood swings of the Sarasota market.
Replied Saunders, "Why not?"
With three world-class designers set to open courses in the next 18 months, the Sarasota area has entered a rarefied era for golf. Such upscale projects, and reputations, tend to push real estate values even higher. Jack Nicklaus and Tom Fazio each have six courses and Robert Trent Jones Jr. has one ranked in America's 100 Greatest Courses by Golf Digest.
Jack Nicklaus (The Concession)
Course rankings out of 100: No. 18, Muirfield Village, Dublin Ohio; No. 64, Shoal Creek, Ala.; No. 65, Harbour Town, Hilton Head Island, S.C.; No. 68, Castle Pines, Castle Rock, Colo.; No. 87, Valhalla, Louisville, Ky.; No. 100, Sycamore Hills, Fort Wayne, Ind.
Tom Fazio (Ritz-Carlton Course)
Course rankings out of 100: No. 37, Wade Hampton, Cashiers, N.C.; No. 48, Shadow Creek, Las Vegas; No. 49, Victoria National, Newburgh, Ind.; No. 88, The Quarry, La Quinta, Calif.; No. 95, Black Diamond, Quarry Course, Lecanto, Fla.; No. 97, The Estancia Club, Scottsdale, Ariz.
Robert Trent Jones Jr. (The Founders Club)
Course ranking out of 100: No. 73, Prince Course, Princeville, Kauai, Hawaii.
Source: Golf Digest, America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses, 2003-2004.