SEMINOLE — Three years ago, the Bay Pines Mobile Home Park was a vibrant community, its 500 oak-shaded dwellings owned by mostly elderly residents who thought they'd found an Eden where they could live out the remainder of their lives.
Then came the real estate bubble, with crazy-high property values and developers frantically searching built-out Pinellas County for large swaths of undeveloped acreage like that beneath mobile homes.
Soon, Bay Pines fell victim when John Loder's Bay Pines LP bought the approximately 59 acres for $38.5 million in May 2006 from the E.J. Bickley Trust.
By the end of the year, hundreds of elderly mobile home owners were gone. The lucky ones found other mobile homes. Others moved into rental housing. Some died.
Their homes also disappeared, leaving only trees and dirt.
The promise of high-end housing never materialized, a victim of a burst real estate bubble and an economy in crisis.
Now, Bay Pines is for sale again. The price tag: $19 million, more than the $13 million the Pinellas property appraiser believes it's worth, but less than half what was paid three years ago.
News of the proposed sale came to Seminole officials last week in a sales flier from realty company Cushman & Wakefield.
The flier boasts of the selling points: residential zoning that allows for 15 units per acre; the possibility of rezoning at least part of it for a hotel, medical office and retail; across from the Veterans Administration hospital with its 6,000 jobs; and a traffic count of 48,500 vehicles a day passing on Bay Pines Boulevard.
But the flier makes no mention of the reason why the property at 1005 Bay Pines Blvd. became one of the symbols of the early victims of the real estate bubble.
As Pinellas property values began rising at the beginning of this century, mobile home parks became an easy target.
Many were owned by families and populated by folks — many poor and elderly — who owned the mobile homes, but not the land underneath them. The property owner made money from rents the mobile home owners paid on the land.
Some property owners could not resist the lure of multimillion-dollar offers and sold the land.
And, while elected officials expressed sympathy, it was hard to turn down the prospect of increased tax revenue from newly redeveloped land.
Loder, for example, talked about building high-end condos or townhomes on the site, although no final plan was ever submitted to the city.
The park residents were left with few rights or options — state law entitled them to receive $3,000 for a single-wide and $6,000 for a double-wide to help move the dwelling elsewhere.
Trouble was, it would cost more to move them even if someplace could be found to take them.
Many of the mobile homes were old and could not be moved or would have to be brought up to code to go into another park.
In that case, state law was even less generous — the homeowner would get $1,375 for a single-wide and $2,750 for a double-wide.
Not much to get a new start for those close to, or below, the poverty level or for elderly people on a fixed income who had thought their mobile home would be the last housing they would need before they died.
Some homeowners put up a fight prompting some developers to pay a "premium" to have the homeowners go away. In the case of Bay Pines, the 174 or 175 homeowners who held out to the bitter end got $250 more than what the state mandated.
The buyout package cost Loder's group an extra $500,000.
And government officials — who said they were worried about the disappearance of affordable housing — came up with programs. One such offered to let developers put even more housing on land in return for dedicating some of the units to "affordable" housing.
At the Bay Pines property, that would mean the developer would have gotten an extra 240 units overall if he promised that 40 would be classified as affordable.
In other words, the county traded higher density to get 40 affordable homes where there had been 500 affordable homes.
Most of the people who had lived in the 500 mobile homes were too poor to afford to buy or rent one of the 40 new affordable units.
If someone buys the land, that could still happen.
But until then, all that's left are trees and dirt.
Bay Pines is not the only former mobile home park to be left desolate.
The Golden Lantern on Park Boulevard at the edge of Pinellas Park also sits fallow after hundreds of mobile home owners were forced to move when a developer bought that land.
Former residents of Bay Pines still try to retain their sense of community by holding a picnic once a year at the Veterans Park across from their old home.
They grill hot dogs and burgers. They talk of old times.
And, when they pass the piles of dirt and empty land, they shake their heads in sorrow.