Developer is optimistic about bay area's recovery

When I walked into Newland Communities' Brandon office to meet chief executive officer Bob McLeod this month, I expected to sit down with a guy with the disposition of Eeyore.

After all, real estate is one of the industries that was most affected by the recession. Sure, Newland manages more than 40 projects in 14 states, but the economic downturn was fueled by troubles in the housing industry.

McLeod, it seemed, had reason to be sadder than Winnie the Pooh's gloomy donkey friend.

Yet, not a hint of doom hovered over McLeod. The guy was downright jovial.

"We believe the job growth is slowly coming back," McLeod said with a gleam. "We see 2011 being better than 2010, 2012 being better than 2011 and 2013 being better than 2012."

McLeod justifies his optimism with the knowledge that Newland managed five of the nation's top 15 selling master planned communities in 2009, according to the independent real estate advisory firm Robert Charles Lesser. Lithia's FishHawk Ranch, Newland's best-known community in Hillsborough County, ranked 15th.

The positive outlook also stems from McLeod's experience with tough real estate markets. As someone who has developed residential and urban mixed-use real estate for more than 40 years, McLeod ticks off the other recessions he has weathered with the confidence of an old gunslinger: 1974-75, 1980-81, and 1990-91.

He concedes that this one presents greater challenges, but he's encouraged.

"There's a light at the end of the tunnel. We're seeing it all around the country."

As for the six communities in the Tampa Bay area, McLeod remains upbeat. Westchase, which is north of Tampa, and Covington Park in Apollo Beach are complete. FishHawk and MiraBay in Apollo Beach continue planned additions, while Circa FishHawk in Lithia and Waterset in Apollo Beach remain in future plans.

Of course, Circa FishHawk and Waterset are part of the future because the economy helped put those plans on hold. McLeod said they hope to begin work on Waterset in mid-2012.

And while foreclosure rates in Newland properties are lower than surrounding developments, they have not been unaffected by the downturn.

Still, the buildout continues at FishHawk Ranch, and the approach is about more than replicating the success of the community. You might think Newland simply would continue with the plans it originated more than 10 years ago when ground was broken at FishHawk, but it continues to revise its approach based on the needs and desires of customers.

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Decisions are driven by research into what future buyers desire, such as computer work station areas outside bedroom entries so kids can't access the Internet behind closed doors.

In some cases, McLeod said, Newland is working with builders to create homes that contain more flexible space, including a few designs that come with a kitchen/dining area but no actual dining room.

The focus is on providing homes that may be smaller but still retain desirable interior amenities.

Overall, McLeod said, the ultimate goal continues to be crafting communities that spawn a sense of true togetherness. He came to Florida this month to receive the Hearthstone Builder Humanitarian Award because Newland has sparked impressive philanthropic efforts in its communities, including FishHawk Ranch.

Overall, Newland has raised more than $500,000 to benefit the homeless through HomeAid America, and nearly $1 million for charities through its annual Life is Good pumpkin festivals.

Still, McLeod deflects the kudos. While suggesting Newland's designs help attract community-oriented residents, he said most of the credit goes to their inherent desire to help others.

"All we did is push them along," he said.

Now, McLeod wants to push along an economic recovery. He conceded to having concerns about the economy, but also noted that, "You can't allow those concerns to reflect how you run your everyday life."

Given that his decisions will play a pivotal role in the South Shore and Brandon area's recovery, you have to appreciate McLeod's optimism. And I hope it's contagious.

That's all I'm saying.

Developer is optimistic about bay area's recovery 01/27/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:49pm]

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