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Tierra Verde has highest percentage of wealthy folks

Nearly 20 percent of the households there earn $150,000 a year or more. But that wasn't the only well-off spot.

By MAUREEN BYRNE AHERN
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 2, 2002


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Suzi Kinter used to wonder why anyone would want to live on Tierra Verde, an island off the southern end of Pinellas County. At the time, there wasn't much there, except a few homes and lots of mosquitoes.

That was then.

Today she can't wait to get to the island to enjoy her large waterfront home. "It's like you don't ever want to leave once you get home," said Mrs. Kinter, a native of St. Petersburg.

Mrs. Kinter and her husband, Mike, a pharmacist, are part of a growing group of wealthy people who are calling Tierra Verde home. The community has the highest percentage of households in south Pinellas that earn $150,000 or more, according to recently released data from Census 2000.

The latest data from Census 2000 came from the long form questionnaire given to roughly one in six households nationwide. The numbers are estimates based on statistical sampling.

Nearly 20 percent of the households in Tierra Verde, an unincorporated area of upscale condominiums and expensive homes, are in the high-income bracket. Close behind are Belleair, Belleair Beach and Feather Sound.

Actually, more households in St. Petersburg earn $150,000 or more than anywhere else in south Pinellas. That's no surprise though since St. Petersburg has the largest population in south Pinellas.

But when you compare percentages -- the number of households that earn $150,000 or more with a community's total number of households -- Tierra Verde comes out on top.

"It has a lot of attractiveness to people," said Terry Coveney, a manager for Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate in St. Pete Beach. "The southern part of this county is so convenient to get to the interstate and to the airport."

No data exist for Tierra Verde in the 1990 Census, so it's hard to compare how many more households are in the high-end income bracket than a decade ago. But in every other city in south Pinellas the number of households that earned $150,000 or more increased from 1990 to 2000. That is to be expected, based on inflation alone.

It's no surprise that the beach towns are relatively well-to-do. All showed substantial increases in the number of wealthy households from 1990 to 2000.

North Redington Beach experienced the biggest spike, with the number of households earning $150,000 or more increasing seven-fold. The data show the town had 10 households in that income bracket in 1990 compared to 75 in 2000.

The town saw a huge increase in wealth thanks to the Tides Beach Club, a 214-unit, six-building complex where buyers paid about $300,000 on average for their slice of a resort lifestyle, complete with jogging path, cafe, library and luxurious clubhouse.

North Redington Beach is not alone in seeing an influx of wealth.

Drive through Pinellas beach towns and you'll see expensive condominiums and luxury homes replacing the typical Florida homes that once dotted the gulf beach towns.

The three-bedroom house that a retired couple bought for $80,000 in the early 1970s can now demand $400,000. Real estate agents say many of the people buying the homes are coming from as close as Tampa to as far away as Germany.

"In general, what you're seeing in this county is an influx of people finding their place in the sun," said Coveney, the real estate manager.

Sharon Law, a real estate broker and office manager for Gail Byrne and Associates in Treasure Island, says the trend of buying houses, knocking them down and building bigger ones has been around for several years, especially in Isle of Capri, Isle of Palms and Paradise Island.

"We're having a lot of redos there," Law said of the Treasure Island neighborhoods.

Builder Carmine Pici is doing some of those makeovers on the beaches. For well-to-do people, he says, the area is still a bargain compared to real estate in other parts of the state such as Naples, Miami and Fort Lauderdale. But the bargain is no longer a secret, he says.

"We're going to continue to grow at a very rapid pace," he said.

And for some cities, new upscale subdivisions explain why the number of wealthy households has increased. In Pinellas Park, two new upscale subdivisions, Bayou Point and Bayou East, were built in the past several years.

But City Manager Jerry Mudd also says the city's strong economic base and community events have attracted people with higher incomes. "A lot of upscale homes have been built here in the past few years," he said.

Gulfport also saw a large increase in the number of households that earn $150,000 or more. The reason is two-fold, according to Paul Williams, the city's public services director.

"There has been a lot of development at Pasadena Yacht and Country Club, and those homes are very expensive," he said.

The value of existing homes in Gulfport also has increased significantly, Williams said. The city, which has become somewhat of an arts community during the past decade, is attracting people with higher incomes who are redeveloping older homes.

"Our request for building permits is as high as it's ever been in the city," Williams said.

The amount of high-income households increased nearly five-fold in Indian Rocks Beach. But City Manager Tom Brobeil says he is more excited about the fact that the city saw the largest increase in median household income.

Since 1990, many affluent young people have discovered Indian Rocks Beach, he said. "What is happening is weekend cottages and retirement homes are being purchased by more upscale professionals who have delayed child-rearing and are now getting into it," Brobeil said.

The numbers for Seminole are somewhat misleading. The Census was taken before the city annexed three areas in 2000, nearly doubling its size and substantially adding to its tax base. One of the areas annexed was Seminole Lake Country Club Estates, a neighborhood of upscale homes. And many affluent neighborhoods that many consider Seminole are actually in unincorporated Pinellas.

What's happening in Pinellas is the natural evolution of things, says architect Randy Wedding, who was mayor of St. Petersburg from 1973 to 1975. "It's the desirability of location that's doing this," he said.

Wedding says he always knew downtown St. Petersburg was ideal for high-end residential development, but it took some time before others thought so too. Today the area is home to three new luxury condominium projects: Cloisters, Florencia and Vinoy Place. Some units have price tags near $2-million. Some neighborhoods in St. Petersburg, particularly Snell Isle, have seen a number of "teardowns," similar to the situation on the beaches, where a person buys a house just for the lot or substantially adds to the home after the purchase.

As real estate values continue to rise, so do the incomes of people who live here, said Wedding, one of the investors in the Cloisters. "I think that's a continuum we're going to see for a long time," he said.

-- Times staff writer Constance Humburg contributed to this report.

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