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Setting is buffer to distant turmoil

Tiffany Powell seemed positively weightless as she arrived at the playground with her two young children.

You couldn't buy a more beautiful Saturday morning, as they scampered around the colorful play gym, or find a homebuyer more content with her community.

"We love it," said Powell, who moved to West Meadows this past fall and suspects that, at 29, she's the oldest parent on her block. "The people are wonderful and the facilities are incredible."

Hard to argue. Not when the only sounds you could hear were the thump of a tennis ball and the whoosh of clear water down West Meadows' signature water slide, the one with the twists and turns like you'd pay for at a theme park.

They're in the news, this barely-out-of-diapers master-planned community whose developer, Atlantic Gulf Communities of Boca Raton, is staging a white sale of its land holdings.

Who will take over?

Who cares, said Powell, who had heard the scuttlebutt but seemed not the least bit worried. "I'm sure there will be an easy transition to another developer."

That was the consensus two days after city transportation manager Elton Smith discussed Atlantic Gulf's plight to the New Tampa Community Council. The company saw its stock plummet 87 percent last year amid losses of $45-million in nine months that had Miami Herald financial writers wondering if the company is "worth more dead than alive."

But you wouldn't get that sense chatting up the men on the tennis court (who had heard nothing about the company's mess) or walking along New Tampa Boulevard, with its graceful red brick wall and breathtaking view of the cypress preserve.

The bloom, at least for these random car-washers and grocery buyers, is still on the rose here. Unresolved questions about an east-west highway connector that would slice this community in two still draw crowds at meetings. But even that panic has abated now that most people realize it will be years, if ever, before the highway connector is built.

"By that time, we won't be here anymore," said Powell. "And I feel like my property values will go up because it will be more convenient, instead of being in the middle of nowhere."

If the road controversy has inhibited home sales, it's hard to tell. Houses in Powell's Watergrass section used to be advertised in the $90,000's, she said; now they start in the $120,000's.

Over in the pricier Estates, people also seem pleased.

"We love it. We absolutely love it," said telecommunications executive Charles Saunders. "We love the managed community. We bought on a conservation lot. Sometimes all you can hear is the hammering of construction. You can sit outside and hear the sandhill cranes as they mate."

Saunders, whose house faces that pretty red brick wall along the future highway route, moved his family here in a rushed transfer from California. He admits he didn't research the road issue all that well.

But the developers "were fair," he said, remembering a brochure that identified the road as a possible highway connector. "I asked people about it and the general consensus was, "It will be shot down, it will never happen.'. . . It's buyer beware to a certain degree."

Nor does every one think the road plan is all that radical. "Right now, if we stood still, we could hear the highway," said Barbara Brosch, balancing a bicycle as her daughter sunbathed on the sidewalk. "This isn't pristine wilderness out here."

Say what you will about master-planned communities _ that they're bland, that they're predictable, that they abide slavishly by deed restrictions _ but they also breed confidence.

High-roller Ken Good might have flamed out in the banking scandals of the late 1980s. But the development he created, Tampa Palms, has flourished.

Strolling the graceful cul-de-sacs of West Meadows, taking in the tasteful paint tones, the calming bird calls and festive water slide, you might never guess that Atlantic Gulf Communities is a reincarnation of General Development Corp., which landed in bankruptcy court in 1990 amid fraud charges against its executives.

Nor could many who bought here, enamored as they are with the new tennis pro, serene vistas and small-town feel of a place that's just one-third built.

There's a sense that this place will hold its value, that whoever assumes the reins will adhere to the carefully crafted plans, endorsed by a city government that's bullish on New Tampa.

To the guys on the tennis court, at least, Boca Raton is far, far away.

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