WESLEY CHAPEL — The new face of Wiregrass Ranch prefers a ball cap over a cowboy hat and transparency over secrecy.
"I think people should know what's going on out here," said J.D. Porter of the Porter ranching family, owners of the 5,000-acre Wiregrass Ranch, now one of the largest regional developments on Florida's west coast.
At 31, James Don Porter is the junior member of the family that hopes to someday turn the cow pastures it has owned since World War II into a mega-mix that includes an 80-bed hospital, a community college, a 300,000-square-foot recreational attraction that includes a hockey rink, a town center of government offices, restaurants and shops, hotels and homes. The site already is home to the Shops at Wiregrass, a "lifestyle center" that includes 100 mall quality stores.
His father, Don, and uncles Tom and Bill, are still involved in decision making, but J.D. now holds the title of manager of the family ranch and spends the majority of his time meeting with developers and regulatory officials. When Wiregrass' land use attorneys show up at county meetings, J.D. shows up with them.
"He really has picked all this up very quickly," said William Merrill, the family's land use attorney. "He's a very fast learner and is doing a very good job for the ranch. He sees this as really becoming a destination location."
Historically, his elders have remained tight-lipped about their plans for the property, with publicity leaking out through county records, but Porter, who is part of the social media generation, has persuaded them to rethink that position. He now handles public relations.
He'll be at Tuesday's County Commission meeting, when commissioners are expected to give their approval to a change in the land use plan that would pave the way for Adventist Health Systems to begin building Wesley Chapel Medical Center and Pasco-Hernando Community College to begin working on a new branch campus set to open in 2013. The plans also call for changes that would allow a large recreation facility such as a hockey rink and the town center. Originally drawn to include 13,026 homes, the plans will cut that number by 1,205 to allow more commercial space.
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A former college baseball pitcher, Porter knew he would return to help deal with the property.
"I wanted to have that bond," he said.
As a child who grew up in a 2,500-square-foot house on land now set aside for the hospital, he recalls real estate agents knocking on the door and offering to pay $100,000 for the property.
No one was in a hurry.
Porter said the prevailing view was "When the time was right, we'll know it."
So Porter grew up catching bass in the ponds, building forts in the woods and helping care for the Brahman, Angus and Hereford cattle.
"We used to camp out in front of his house," said Will Roberts, a childhood friend who played with Porter as part of the Dodgers, a San Antonio Dixie Youth League baseball team. "We'd try to catch armadillos. It was like trying to catch a moving football. Most of the time we wouldn't catch anything."
They also used to slide down limerock hills with plastic orange sleds and watch the wildlife: wild turkeys, deer, coyotes and bobcats.
Roberts remembers his friend as a calm but driven young man who used to make to-do lists before bed each night.
"He might not get to everything, but he always knew what was ahead of him," Roberts said. "He was always focused on getting the job done."
He said it comes as no surprise that Porter would want to take an active role in the area's future.
"He wants to do what's in the best interest of everybody," Roberts said.
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Porter remains very protective of the ranch. He still helps with cattle, which he refers to as "our buddies." During a recent tour, he slows the sport utility vehicle and looks at a cow standing beside her calf.
"Look at that mother, how she takes total care of that calf," he marvels.
He also is quick to point out the wild turkeys strutting in a field. He knows the dirt paths so well that he plows the SUV straight through big pools of standing water from the previous night's heavy rains. He's soft-spoken but passionate enough to have held trespassers at gunpoint until deputies arrive.
"It's bittersweet," he said of the land that still includes the brick home of his grandfather, James "Wiregrass" Porter. He said the homes will come eventually but for now the focus is on commercial because the area needs jobs.
He speaks proudly of the town center, which he hopes will also include a bona fide county government center with a full range of services, including a place to hold County Commission meetings. People in the central part of the county shouldn't always have to drive to the edges to do business, he says.
He also envisions the area as a career center, with multi-story buildings.
"We don't just want office condos," he said.
Porter, who was married this year, said he plans to remain in the area and as a stakeholder in the county. He wants his family's home to be a place that enriches others' lives as much as it did his own.
"I want to be able to take my grandchildren back here in 30 years and be proud to show it to them," he said.
Researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.