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Business Outlook 2006

For development, change is grand

Southern Hills Plantation Club will be big and upscale when finished, but already it may signal the twilight of the county's slow, Southern lifestyle.

By MICHAEL KRUSE
Published February 19, 2006


BROOKSVILLE - From high up above, from the back of a small, four-seat plane, the 1,000-acre area on the south side of this small city looks like half-done model homes with wood-skeleton roofs and wide fairways and beaming-green golf holes cut out of thick-clustered pines and oaks. The Tampa skyline can be seen off in the distance in the haze of the visible horizon.

On the ground are dirt piles and pickup trucks, fat plastic blue and white pipes stacked like firewood on the sides of just-paved roads with names like Grand Summit Drive, Crown Peak Court and Pinnacle Place. The entrance to the development is ornate and lit up at night and seems to be one of the few things finished at the Southern Hills Plantation Club.

This place on U.S. 41 is about to change Brooksville, and Hernando County as a whole, and its overall image in greater Tampa Bay.

Lots run from $100,000 to more than $500,000. Houses start at just under $400,000 and go as high as $1.6-million. Preliminary figures from the county Property Appraiser's Office have the land - just the land - appraised at a bit more than $80-million.

Southern Hills isn't the only high-end, gated and golf-oriented, country club community going up in and around the city limits - Hernando Oaks is across the street, and Majestic Oaks is on the northeast side of town - but it is the biggest and the most luxurious. And after a lengthy, at times controversial approval process, and astounding early sales, the 999-home development is expected to have people move in sometime later this year.

Hernando County, obviously, continues to grow. The population is going up. The price of a home is going up. The number of cars on the Suncoast Parkway is going up. The county is shedding its reputation as a retirement spot in Spring Hill coupled with Brooksville's slow, Southern lifestyle and morphing into more of a year-round, commuter-oriented residential area. And Southern Hills is emerging as the showpiece of that shift.

"It's undoubtedly one of the most attractive if not the most spectacular developments in the entire Tampa Bay area," said Marvin Rose, a housing analyst based in Tarpon Springs. "It will certainly upgrade the image of Brooksville and Hernando County as a whole."

"I don't see how it can not," Hernando County Office of Business Development director Mike McHugh said in January.

The LandMar Group, based in Jacksonville, is the development company for Southern Hills, and its marketing materials call Brooksville "an area whose time has come."

Nick Nikkinen from the Property Appraiser's Office calls Southern Hills a "real estate phenomenon."

The average sales price for a home in Hernando in 2004 was $145,000, which was up $34,000 from the year before - but that, obviously, is nowhere close to the prices at Southern Hills.

"You start talking about the types of homes that are being built there," Tommie Dawson Realty broker Buddy Selph said, "and all of a sudden people are associating our county with a little more affluence."

"It's a big step up for Brooksville," LandMar vice president of marketing Jim Doyle said while giving a reporter and a photographer from the St. Petersburg Times a tour of Southern Hills recently.

LandMar has built similar, high-end communities in Tampa, Fort Myers, Jacksonville Beach, Fernandina Beach, St. Augustine, Palm Coast and St. Marys, Ga.

But the approval process here in Brooksville was slowed by some of the same issues that come up with lots of major developments in Florida's seemingly never-ending housing boom: sprawl, impact fees, potential effects on the environment.

The company closed on the property in 2000.

The Suncoast Parkway opened in early 2001.

The City Council made zoning adjustments to its comprehensive plan in approving the development in May 2003. But the County Commission threatened to sue the city in June due to the high costs of the impacts associated with a community the size of Southern Hills. The state Department of Community Affairs slammed the city's decision in a letter sent in July.

By 2004, though, after all the approvals were tweaked and finished, LandMar sold 302 home sites on a single Saturday in June. Even though there was nothing there except the land. Even though local real estate agents had wondered whether or why people would pay such high prices for lots and houses in Brooksville. Even though LandMar's goal had been 75.

The sales added up to more than $38-million.

"We were shocked," Doyle said in January.

Then came 2005 ... and more of the same: one Saturday in June, 236 lots gone, $40-million in sales.

The folks who are buying the lots in Southern Hills are sometimes families with children, according to Mark Davis, the on-site sales manager, but mainly they are empty-nesters, split-timers and second-homers from Tampa or states up North.

Brooksville Realtor Robert Buckner owns property at Southern Hills and last month played a round of golf on the Pete Dye-designed course during the well-attended grand opening for that particular portion of the development.

"I would say most of the folks there were not Hernando County residents," Buckner said. "Most of them were from what I'd call "out of town."'

From the small, four-seat plane, the parkway runs like a flat black line that splits the county into two. Traffic starts to pick up in the early evening.

On the west side, the houses in Spring Hill are set up in evenly spaced, semicircular patterns, almost as if they were nail-gunned into the ground. The sun shines off the tops of all the parked cars.

On the east side, trees, trees, trees, and Brooksville seems small from the air, or at least its immediate downtown does - a dot up on a hill in the middle of so much patchwork brown and green.

Right around Southern Hills, though, 3 miles down on U.S. 41, there is movement and change.

The development isn't too far from trailers and small one-story homes with tin-covered carports on the outskirts of the city in what used to be the country. But Lowe's opened nearby in December. It's right behind the new Brooksville Court strip center.

Lowe's is focusing on putting stores around metro areas with populations higher than 500,000, including Boston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Tampa, too, according to a spokeswoman.

"We look at hundreds of factors," Karen Cobb said from the company's headquarters in Mooresville, N.C. "They include home ownership, population, access to major roadways and growth in the community - and we believe there is plenty of growth potential in Brooksville."

On State Road 50, meanwhile, the brand-new Brooksville Regional Hospital can be seen from the highest point on Southern Hills' seventh-hole fairway. The hospital opened in September.

Brooksville Regional?

All the new commercial development coming in?

"They were coming anyway," LandMar's Doyle said. "I think Southern Hills was a catalyst for the things that were going to happen anyway."

"But Southern Hills will in and of itself serve as a lead catalyst to bring some of the higher-end stores, shops and restaurants to this marketplace," SunTrust Bank/Nature Coast chairman and chief executive officer Jim Kimbrough said. "I think you'll see that kind of affluent resident."

"Knowing the types of folks that are coming, absolutely there's pre-emptive development going on," said McHugh from the Office of Business Development. "It's easy to look at the demographics of these communities and figure out what kind of people will be living there and what they will want to buy."

"I would expect to see a higher demand for commercial locations along 41 to the intersection of 41 and Cortez," Buckner said. "I don't see a mall coming to Brooksville just because of Southern Hills, but you may see more specialty shops over time - boutiques, clothing stores, those types of things."

Things like the Rising Sun Cafe coffee shop, the beach-themed Home at Sea store and Creative Porch and Garden - all businesses of that nature that opened in the downtown district in 2005.

And this has only just begun.

In five years, Brooksville has gone from five to 10 square miles due to annexation, said Bill Geiger, the city's community development director. Within the city limits, Geiger said, a half-dozen to a dozen new homes get built in an average recent year. But with Hernando Oaks, Majestic Oaks and Southern Hills especially, that's about to change in a huge way.

The new Southern Hills sales center opened in November.

The 7,850-square-foot spa and fitness center and the golf course opened to members last month.

The third phase of home sales is set to close in April.

The clubhouse, Doyle said, with its main dining room, grand staircase and downstairs pro shop, should open probably by November.

Which is also when people could start moving into the first finished homes at Southern Hills.

One late afternoon last month, up on the porch of the under-construction clubhouse, Doyle and Davis looked west over a golf green and some pines.

"I like the ridge line out there," Doyle said.

"You really get a sense of where you are," Davis said.

And of what's coming on the horizon.

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or 352 848-1434.

[Last modified February 19, 2006, 01:08:19]


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