Connerton, one of the largest residential developments around Tampa Bay, has gone out of business.
On Friday, developer Terrabrook closed its offices and welcome center on U.S. 41 in Land O'Lakes and let go six full-time and four part-time employees.
"They kept the project running a long time without revenue," said Connerton president Stew Gibbons, who was laid off. "But they just couldn't make the finances work anymore."
Developers envisioned Connerton as a mid to upscale "new town" similar to Disney's Celebration near Orlando. Unfortunately for Terrabrook, construction on the 3,500-acre project began just as the Tampa Bay housing market crested in 2005.
Terrabrook aimed to sell 700 to 800 homes a year, but sales barely topped 225 after four.
Randy Cook is one of those buyers. He built a $900,000 house in a gated section of Connerton in 2006 and joined the neighborhood's governing board.
"It's a nice community. It's a shame we're caught up in this economic crunch," Cook said. "You have to do some soul-searching: Did we overpay? Did we jump in too quickly?"
Gibbons said he's working without pay to close the sale of Connerton to an undisclosed investor. The deal needs the approval of Terrabrook, banks and bondholders who financed Connerton's community development district.
In November, Connerton defaulted on tens of millions of dollars worth of tax-exempt bonds used to finance construction of roads, street lamps, utilities and other infrastructure.
If negotiations succeed, the property could change hands in January and Gibbons and his staff would be rehired.
"Right now I'm working from my cell phone and from my home," Gibbons said.
Built atop the former Conner cattle ranch, Connerton fits in a rough triangle formed by State Road 52, U.S. 41 and Ehren Cutoff in Land O'Lakes.
Its two main selling points have been 3,000 acres of nature preserve that adjoin the property and a future town center to sport offices, stores and schools that residents could walk to. Interlocking nature trails would knit together the 7,000 to 8,000 homes.
Gibbons originally predicted the town center would start to rise this year. That has been postponed until at least 2012.
Terrabrook completed a $8 million resort-style clubhouse this year. The clubhouse has recently trimmed hours and raised fees.
As part of its live-work-and-play philosophy, Connerton developers sold off chunks of land for a branch of University Community Hospital and a Publix-anchored shopping center. Both are unaffected by the cessation of housing sales.
Residents like Cook hope a new owner will maintain the building standards — including requirements that a certain percentage of homes be built with old-style porches, detached garages and back alleys.
Until the housing market crashed, homes in Connerton were about a third more expensive than comparable homes near U.S. 41.
"If they bring in a tract home builder, it's going to lower the values of the whole area," Cook said.
James Thorner can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3313.