RUSKIN — Little Harbor looks like a picture-perfect postcard from a tropical locale. • Palm trees rustle in the breeze, and the smell of saltwater from the bay reaches the balconies of the metal-roofed townhomes. • But about two years after opening, only half of the townhomes have been bought. Just four condos in the 158-unit condo building, which opened about a year ago, have sold. • It looks like a ghost town.
On weekdays, few cars are parked in front of the homes and the beach is empty. In the evenings, most of the units are dark and the resort is silent.
On a recent morning, Wisconsin resident Ralph Tolokken, 63, strolled along the boardwalk, peering into the murky water as he searched for manatees. They've been known to show up near the docks.
He and his wife rented a two-bedroom condo for $500 a week. He enjoys the quiet evenings at the sleepy resort.
"It doesn't seem as full as I would have anticipated," he said.
Locals say they expected the units to fill more quickly. Investors bought townhomes in 2006, some paying close to $700,000. Nearby residents opposed it, fearing that traffic and noise would spike.
That never happened.
Shortly after the townhomes were put on the market, real estate agent Dick Hacynski stopped working for Little Harbor. After almost three months of not being able to sell anything, he had to find another job.
"I think it was a good concept," he said. "It was just that the market fell apart."
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Little Harbor — perhaps the most ambitious development in Ruskin — started as the Bahia Beach Resort & Marina and was bought by developer EarthMark about five years ago. EarthMark renovated the inn and made big plans for the resort, building condos, townhomes, single-family homes and even pitching a hotel to county planners.
Little Harbor brochures tout the "Anglo-Caribbean architectural style reminiscent of British colonies like Barbados and Bermuda."
The prices listed on two-bedroom townhomes range from $400,000 to $700,000. Three-bedroom models are listed between $600,000 and $700,000, and a four-bedroom model was priced between $600,000 and $800,000. All are three-story units, ranging from 1,818 to 3,142 square feet.
The company markets it as a seaside village with resort amenities. There are three pools, a workout room with flat-screen televisions and a private beach next to a restaurant.
But many nearby residents weren't pleased. They warned county officials that Little Harbor would bring noise, parties and traffic. They said the high-density project wouldn't fit in with rural Ruskin.
"There were a lot of issues," said Mariella Smith, a Ruskin resident who has battled the development for years.
Although her fears of traffic jams and parties haven't actualized, she's still not pleased.
"Hundreds of empty condos is a blight in my neighborhood," she said. "It's bad empty, and it's bad filled."
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The first phase of townhomes opened in 2006. Dozens sold at prices $100,000 to $200,000 more than their current values, property appraiser records show.
That year was about as good as Little Harbor could have expected, said real estate analyst Marvin Rose, whose Rose Residential Reports tracks new-home sales.
Then in 2007, sales took a dive. The second phase of 78 townhomes opened. Thirteen sold in 2007.
Then in 2008, only five units sold, county records show.
"That's obviously terrible," Rose said. "There's no way to put a good spin on that."
Still, marketing director Peg Truckenbrod says the company hears from potential buyers. Their recently announced specials on several townhomes, she said, are to kick off the new year, and not a sign of desperation.
She touts the amenities, like a workout room, tennis courts and multiple pools. And "we're close to everything," she said, pointing out its proximity to Interstate 75.
"We'll get through it," she said.
To help offset their trouble selling units, Little Harbor officials sought county approval to rent their condo units and build a hotel. The hotel was denied, but they're currently renting out the condos, even for one-night stays.
Rose said that while local builders have boosted marketing and lowered prices, it might just be best for developers — including those at Little Harbor — to wait out the bad times.
"Beyond drastic price reductions, there's not a lot you can do," Rose said. "I guess just wait it out until times improve."
Although times are tough now, Truckenbrod is hopeful that the market will turn. Anyway, she says, the resort has an advantage that regular subdivisions don't: a regular trickle of out-of-towners.
People coming to the resort for vacation get a taste of life there and may consider buying property, she said.
"That works well for us," she said.
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Heather Paskert rents a three-bedroom condo with her husband. They've lived at Little Harbor since last summer with their two children, ages 7 and 4.
"It's pretty amazing for us," she said. "It feels like a really high-class beach resort."
The owners bought it for $645,800 in December 2006. They live in Virginia and plan to retire at Little Harbor someday, Paskert said.
She guesses that there's only about a dozen units with full-time residents.
"I think there's only one other couple down there with children," she said.
She doesn't mind the relaxed change of pace. Before the move, the Paskerts lived in a Riverview neighborhood, and she's happy paying $1,500 a month for a three-bedroom condo, which includes Internet, cable and phone service.
"We'll go down to the beach at sunset and you'll see the whole St. Pete skyline," she said. "There's always a breeze, and you can smell the saltwater in the air."
She's never had problems with traffic or noise. The busiest time was the Fourth of July, when people came to watch the fireworks over the bay.
"It just seems like a sleepy beach town," she said.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.