WESLEY CHAPEL — Bridgewater, a neighborhood that hired a public relations firm to help lift it out of the housing bust, recently got some help from the expert host of HGTV's Curb Appeal: The Block.
John Gidding toured the 760-home development last month and offered some low-cost tips to spruce up the mostly investor-owned properties. The tips range from adding flowers around mailboxes to placing a table and chairs outside to create a more inviting feel.
The show, which airs at various times, features designer and former model Gidding, contractor Chip Wade and project manager Kimberly Lacy, "who overhaul one home's exterior with a makeover so dramatic it's no longer considered the neighborhood eyesore but the envy of the block," according to the HGTV Web site. "Next, they make their way up and down the street to repaint front doors, add window boxes and provide smaller-scale makeovers that create instant impact and increase the value of the entire block."
Gidding learned about Bridgewater from Jack Glasure of French/West/Vaughan, a large PR firm with offices in Tampa. Gidding also is a client of the firm. He was in town and decided to visit, said spokeswoman Amy Engster.
She said Gidding was inspired by the association's commitment to increase property values and lead the way out of the housing slump, so he gave some suggestions for increasing curb appeal on a budget.
His tips came shortly after tensions surfaced between some investors and the homeowners association, which has cracked down on deed restriction violations.
"I heard the board was met with resistance from noncompliant investors and owners when it began taking the necessary steps to rehabilitate the neighborhood," Gidding said in a news release. "I wanted to give them tips for creating low-maintenance curb appeal on a budget that they could share with the community."
Resident Lynne Tonte, 47, took those tips to heart. She and her husband bought some inexpensive patio furniture for the back yard and got a new mailbox to put on the post. (She already had the flowers Gidding suggested.)
"He made it seem so easy," said Tonte, an empty nester who moved from Virginia about a year ago to a 1,560-square-foot home in Bridgewater.
"The things he mentioned were so simple."
Gidding also suggested a few things that the association could do in common areas, such as using boulders to create unique landscapes and planting large palms at the entrances of main streets.
"We are so honored that John Gidding took the time to come all the way out to Bridgewater," said association president Mark Spector. "His tips are much appreciated, and I look forward to sharing them with the entire neighborhood. Hopefully, this helps us come together as a community to proactively restore our property values and remain true to our vision of a family-oriented, owner-occupied neighborhood."
Bridgewater, which was developed by Lennar Corp. in 2004, was one of the last developments in Florida finished prior to the residential real estate market meltdown. The neighborhood was profiled by the Wall Street Journal in 2007 for struggles with absentee investors and noncompliant renters.
In less than one year, Bridgewater reports that its financials have been brought from near bankruptcy to financial stability; collection rates rose from 25 to 55 percent; homeowners' dues were reduced from $170 to $70 per quarter; and owner-occupancy rates increased from 40 to 55 percent.
The board voted to operate independently in July 2009, putting an end to unauthorized negotiations between previous property managers, legal staff and delinquent owners. Members also negotiated the cancellation of the bulk cable contract, converting the community to individual accounts.
"We are always trying to be innovative," said Spector, who took some criticism for the board's decision to hire the PR firm. "We believe we are the first HOA in the country to hire a PR firm, and capturing attention from the likes of John Gidding certainly confirms our reason for choosing public relations over a local billboard advertisement."