The time appears to be right for development in Murdock Village

One developer wants to build a place to live, another wants to build a place to pay — the pair are poised to breathe life into a long dormant portion of Port Charlotte

Earle Kimel, Sarasota Herald-Tribune — September 23, 2019

PORT CHARLOTTE — Almost a decade-and-a-half after Charlotte County officials decided to buy up 1,110-acres of single-family lots platted by General Development Corp., a vibrant new community is taking root on 610 acres just west of the crossroads of Tamiami Trail and El Jobean Road.

Two major tent-poles for the area once known as Murdock Village are starting to emerge.

The first, and farthest along, is the 450-acre, 2,400-home residential subdivision recently rechristened as West Port by Kolter Land Partners.

The second, Arredondo Pointe, a 160-acre commercial, recreational and entertainment district would feature everything from hotels, a conference center and a Lost Lagoon Water Park.

Lost Lagoon’s developers want to offer the community a gathering place that was never quite envisioned when GDC created Port Charlotte during the 1950s land boom.

Charlotte County officials also hope to entice a major corporation to relocate to headquarters to a 100-acre campus between those two potential jewels, in a move that would change the character of Port Charlotte and augment new development that’s going on in the West Villages neighborhoods of North Port as well as along Charlotte Harbor, where Allegiant Airlines is building its Sunseeker Resort.

“We’re going for corporate center relocations, call centers, whatever wants to be in the middle of all of the excitement that’s happening in Murdock Village,” Dave Gammon, director of the Charlotte County Economic Development Office, said, referring to about 100 acres with frontage on El Jobean Road that’s nestled between West Port and Arredondo Pointe.

Gammon called it a realization of the vision that prompted Charlotte County to buy 1,110-acres of sparsely developed land that GDC had subdivided and sold.

The original concept involved selling off about 870 acres to private developers, with the remaining acreage reserved for parks and government use.

Between 2003 and 2006 — and at the height of the housing boom — the county spent $119 million to buy the land, failed to negotiate successfully with a developer and the land sat through the recession.

“The market is ready for it, it’s finally come around where a developer, private sector is looking at it and say yeah, we can make this work and it makes sense,” Gammon said.

A place to call home

Private Equity Group, a Fort Myers-based private equity fund, closed on the purchase of roughly 450 acres of Murdock Village land for $11.6 million in August, but quickly sold off all but 42-acres to Kolter Land Partners for an undisclosed sum.

Jim Harvey, president of Kolter Land Partners, said the plan is for Kolter to build primarily single-family detached homes in the $200,000 to $400,000 range on its 408-acre site, with the possibility of some attached townhouses in the future.

As part of a rebranding, Murdock Village was dropped in favor of West Port — reflecting the fact that the development is in the western portion of Port Charlotte.

Private Equity Group holds the rights to develop commercial property and a 300-unit rental apartment on its acreage within West Port.

Overall, the West Port site is approved for 2,400 single-family and multifamily homes and 300,000 square feet of neighborhood commercial and retail space.

Ultimately, Harvey said, the number of single-family homes may be closer to 1,700 than 2,100.

First up, installation of major infrastructure, including an improved O’Donnell Boulevard, that would serve as the main spine road for West Port.

“There’s actually bulldozers knocking trees down and starting that work,” Harvey said.

O’Donnell Boulevard will still be the main access road to the North County Regional Park, as well as a planned county aquatic center.

O’Donnell Boulevard will ultimately connect Tamiami Trail and El Jobean Road. As part of the agreement, multi-use paths will connect the residences to North County Regional Park and older, degraded GDC-era roads will be removed.

Harvey said West Port is an opportunity to offer some more affordable price points to a region that spans from North Port to Punta Gorda.

Kolter’s target market includes everyone from retirees to new families.

“The West Villages community is about a 10-minute drive up 41 and if you look at where house pricing has gone to there now, it’s priced a bunch out of the market,” Harvey said.

“Affordable, to me, is not the type of housing, it’s ‘What is the cost of nice housing?’” he continued. “We’re going to be able to offer single-family product in the low 200s, where in most of Sarasota that number starts with a 3.

“We really see West Port not being a neighborhood but I would call it a new area within Port Charlotte, our hope would be that name would become known as the new vibrant area of Port Charlotte,” Harvey said. “You’re not going to get rid of the old platted lots that are out there on the edges, but this is a real opportunity to create a well-landscaped, well-planned community with a lot of different opportunities for both jobs, dining, entertainment and living.”

A place to play

Bill Gridley, chief operating officer for Lost Lagoon Development, sees Arredondo Pointe as providing entertainment options for West Port and the entire region.

The current plan calls for the developer to close on the property later this month, and get shovels in the dirt as soon as Charlotte County gives final approval to its planning and zoning submissions — though it has yet to finalize the master plan.

Technically, the company is paying $6.83 million — in five separate phases over four years — for the property.

The first closing, on 62.4 acres, should be for roughly $1.93 million.

“We’re looking at Charlotte County as a growth area,” Gridley said. “What we are looking to do is create a town center for this growing community.

“We want to create a living, working play space where people can come together, do some shopping, enjoy a weekend with the kids,” he added. “To really create a living room for the Port Charlotte-West Port area.”

The construction timeline, Gridley said, should mirror what Kolter does at West Port.

“We want to create a place that can provide jobs for the new residents, a recreation space,” he said. “We want to come out of the ground as parallel as possible, with the work that’s being done in West Port.

“The success with one will really build on the success of the other.”

Arredondo Pointe will be built in phases.

The most publicized amenity will be Lost Lagoon, a themed water park that will be marketed to draw from outside the region, as far north as the Interstate 4 corridor.

Just as Kolter is improving O’Donnell Boulevard, Lost Lagoon Development will widen and improve Toledo Blade Boulevard between Tamiami Trail and El Jobean Road — significantly improving access to Interstate 75.

The estimated cost of that project is $6.07 million, which would be reimbursed to the company out of sale proceeds. Other site costs, such as traffic lights, acceleration/deceleration lanes, interior roads and infrastructure, would be paid by the developer and are non-reimbursable.

Arredondo Pointe’s first phase will include a hotel and small retail component.

Once plans are approved, the hotel and retail area could be completed in roughly 16 months.

While that’s under way, Gridley said, the developer would work on the second portion of that initial phase, which would include additional hotel rooms, a conference center and Lost Lagoon.

Restaurants and entertainment venues are likely possibilities, and unique amenities such as indoor skydiving and Topgolf are in current concept plans though that will depend on continued popularity.

“Right now, multi-tiered golf is incredibly hot,” Gridley said. “Hopefully, five years from now that’s still an amazing option.”

Still, Gridley noted, his project evolves with every public meeting.

“We are really trying to listen to what people from this area need, from a town center to a living room — whether it’s jobs, or retail, restaurant or entertainment, we want to provide that,” Gridley said, then added the “living room” reference came from the audience at one of those public meetings.

A synergy of place

Lost Lagoon Development originally planned on building its water park at Tom Bennett Park, a 200-acre parcel off of State Road 64 in Manatee County.

Manatee County had issued a request for proposals to build a water park, and Lost Lagoon Development won the RFP to build a 20-acre water park.

Opposition by area residents eventually halted negotiations.

Gridley said ultimately the park wasn’t viable in the amount of space available.

But news of the potential water park made the May 1, 2015 Weekend Wave, a newsletter put out by Charlotte County Economic Development.

“As a result of the news reports from that project, Dave Gammon actually invited our team to Port Charlotte, to look at the Murdock Village property,” Gridley said. “We were really excited about what was possible on the expanded footprint.”

Lost Lagoon has worked on Disney and Universal water parks as well as parks in the Bahamas, other members of the partnership have experience with retail lifestyle centers around the country.

“That’s why Murdock Village was such a perfect fit for what we could bring to the table,” Gridley said “It really matched all of our expertise.”

Gridley, Harvey and Gammon all point to recent major developments — ranging from the opening of the Atlanta Braves spring training complex in the West Villages neighborhood of North Port, to Allegiant redeveloping more than 22 acres of blighted waterfront into Sunseeker — as proof that the region is primed for growth.

“It’s a great thing,” Gammon said. “The Braves are a perfect example, it’s a big thing for the region, the Braves are going to help us as much as Sarasota County.

“The best thing to say is, we have a bunch of synergy,” he added. “So much is happening, the more it drives to us.”

Julie Mathis, executive director of the Charlotte County Chamber of Commerce, said development of West Port and Arredondo Pointe will also be a boon to existing businesses up by the Port Charlotte Town Center Mall, as well as others in the region

“Now that people see movement, they really think it’s going to happen — we’ve been talking about it for so many years,” Mathis said. “It’s going to impact North Port, it’s going to impact Englewood, it’s absolutely regional.”

Gridley said the key for his project will be not going too fast, too soon.

“The real balancing act is making sure you have jobs for the people, you have homes for the people with the jobs,” he said. “You want everything to rise in tandem and grow in tandem, so you don’t face a housing crunch or too many jobs, not enough people.”

A place for corporations

Charlotte officials are hoping some of the jobs created by the rebirth of the area will come through some sort of corporate center location. Gammon said about 100 acres of the 165-acre parcel between West Port and Arredondo Pointe are being marketed with that in mind.

“Now Charlotte County is on the map,” Gammon said. “Sunseeker helps us, having the third-fastest growing airport in the country helps us.”

It’s the same strategy Sarasota County and North Port officials hope will be successful for a portion of the West Villages, near the Atlanta Braves spring training complex.

In March, the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County and the city of North Port brought down Atlanta area corporate site selectors for the Braves’ first spring training game at CoolToday Park.

Ron Starner, senior vice president of Conway Inc., the corporate parent company to Site Selection Magazine, frequently points to the decision by The Hertz Corporation to relocate to Estero in nearby Lee County as the ultimate acquisition.

With the Tampa Bay Rays training at Charlotte Sports Park and the beaches of Englewood and Boca Grande relatively near, the West Port area of Port Charlotte can offer benefits similar to the West Villages.

“We are making a concerted effort to go directly at all companies, like Hertz, that are in not-so-friendly tax states,” Gammon said. “That’s exactly the model we’re looking at to come down here.”

Gammon said once Kolter starts moving dirt on their acreage and people can see the path for future homes, excitement will build.

“It’s going to really open people’s eyes and turn Murdock Village from a forest to a happening development,” Gammon said. “People are going to see all that activity and say, we have to be here.”