WESLEY CHAPEL — When Bobby Martin suggested his homeowners association hire a public relations firm to help pull his neighborhood from the pit of plummeting property values, his fellow board members responded with skepticism.
"It was initially shot down," said Martin, a 31-year-old financial planner who moved to the Bridgewater community in 2005. But after listening to his pitch — that the move would put the 760-home Lennar community ahead of others in the competition to rebound from the housing collapse — they embraced the idea.
So Martin brought in Jack Glasure, a buddy he met through a networking group, to market Bridgewater to families in hopes of filling the vacant and rental homes with owners. Glasure, a graduate of Saint Leo University, works for French West Vaughan, a North Carolina firm with an office in Ybor City. Its clients include such national brands as Wrangler and Coca-Cola. Closer to home, it represents the troubled BayWalk shopping center in St. Petersburg.
Both the association and the firm are touting the relationship as a first. Glasure said if it works, he hopes to take the plan to other communities facing similar challenges.
Residents are relying on the public relations firm to fill the void left after developers and their professional marketers left. The community is reaching out to relocation services and real estate agents and plans to host a fall festival next month that will be open to the public.
A key goal is to heighten awareness during the weeks before Nov. 30, when the window closes on the $8,000 federal tax credit for first-time home buyers.
"There's a competition, and we want Bridgewater to be the winner," said Mark Spector, president of the homeowners association.
Back from the brink
Since he moved from California to the neighborhood off Curley Road in 2005, many of the homes plunged into foreclosure as the housing market collapsed.
"For rent" signs, unkempt lawns, dirty mailboxes and trash marred the appearance of the development, which had homes selling for more than $300,000 during the housing boom. Most sell for half that or less now.
Spector said at the lowest point a couple of years ago, about 70 percent of the homes were empty or rented.
Today, about half are owner-occupied.
Neighbors credit Spector, a pharmacologist who commutes to St. Petersburg every day and focuses almost single-mindedly on his neighborhood at night, with the turnaround.
As president of the homeowners association, he helped broker a deal with Bright House Networks that ended bulk billing and let individuals buy cable services. The contract was bleeding the association, he said.
He also spearheaded some moves, such as a one-time special assessment of $250 per home and enacting a $400 transfer fee that goes to the association when a sale is closed.
"Those didn't make me the most popular guy," he said.
But it took the homeowners association, which teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, off life support.
Touting its strengths
The group also fired its property managers and took on the task itself, mowing overgrown lawns and filing liens afterward. It also plans to convert some of the basketball courts to tennis courts after Spector said the tennis courts were appraised at higher values.
The deal with French West Vaughan cost the association a total of about $5,000, Spector said. Not cheap, but a steal given that many firms start at $10,000 a month.
The firm is marketing the development's strengths, such as its proximity to the 1-year-old Shops at Wiregrass, the views of its 18 man-made lakes and its dog park, an unusual amenity in local communities.
Also in the works is an open house. Bridgewater volunteers also want to have booths at community events to get the word out.
"One of the activities the PR firm feels we need to take on is healing the community from within," Spector wrote in a letter to rally the troops. "Well, we all need to pull together to make things better. We can't wait for someone else to fix all of our issues. We have to step up and fix them ourselves."
Spector is correct, say housing experts and another public relations executive. Without a top-quality community, a public relations campaign will fall flat.
"Given the current conditions and all the various problems with the market and specific areas, they as well as home builders are facing a very, very strong headwind," said housing analyst Marvin Rose.
John Heagney, who owns a public relations firm and has represented a host of builders and developers, said Bridgewater residents should make sure they can deliver the goods when people get past the brochures.
"A PR campaign is only as good as the product you're trying to sell," he said.
"Sizzle is one thing. Steak is something else."
Martin thinks the firm can deliver.
"They've reviewed it and it's achievable," he said.
Lisa Buie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4604.