How to plan for new communities as Tampa Bay’s suburbs continue to grow

Metro Development Group’s Vaike O’Grady discusses how they’re making sure people “don’t feel like they’re giving up anything by moving a little further out.”
Vaike O'Grady stands in front of the Metro Lagoon at Metro Development Group’s Epperson community in Pasco County.
Vaike O'Grady stands in front of the Metro Lagoon at Metro Development Group’s Epperson community in Pasco County. [ Courtesy of Metro Development Group ]
Published March 31, 2022|Updated March 31, 2022

Thousands of people are moving to Tampa Bay every month, putting real estate in high demand.

The suburban areas around St. Petersburg and Tampa are growing at the fastest rate, new data shows, and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon.

Some of the highest home sales spikes in the region come from Pasco and southern Hillsborough counties, according to Zillow. Metro Development Group is in the business of building houses in the suburbs and has seen an influx of people moving here from out of state, said Metro’s vice president of marketing and communications Vaike O’Grady.

Metro, a Tampa-based real estate firm founded in 2003, has created master-plan communities within Pasco, Hillsborough, Manatee and Lee counties known for their unique amenities. Metro was the first developer to create neighborhoods around “lagoons”, or large community pools that function like a public beach. They built Epperson Lagoon in Wesley Chapel in 2018, and recently opened a second MetroLagoons community in Wimauma.

In this conversation, O’Grady explains how Metro builds communities and why the company is looking for more opportunities further from city centers. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is a master-plan community?

The term has been used very loosely. Sometimes subdivisions will call themselves a master plan but they just have a pool. A master plan is where you have a larger vision for how a town can be built. That’s what Metro does. That’s why we do such large communities - we’re actually building the cities of tomorrow. So it’s looking at things like the major roadways that connect the community, the connectivity inside the community with trails, for example, and also internet connectivity, and looking at schools, commercial and apartments, and all the things that go along with the communities in addition to the amenities like a lagoon, pool or a dog park.

What are some of the needs for people looking to live in the suburbs?

What we try to do at Metro is create places that are desirable for people so that they don’t feel like they’re giving up anything by moving a little further out. It’s a suburban location, for sure, and sometimes they may have to drive further to get to work. But the payoff is you’ve got your conveniences nearby, you’ve got your schools in the neighborhood. You’ve got all the amenities right there at home. So you really don’t have to leave. Pricing changes between living in town versus living out of town a bit, so we can offer a better value.

What parts of the Tampa Bay area are growing the fastest?

We’re really invested in Pasco County. And we’ve seen tremendous success in our Epperson community there, which is ranked No. 1 in Tampa for home sales and home starts. We have a second community in Wesley Chapel called Mirada, which will be over 5,000 homes. Those are two very large communities and between the two of them, we call them a connected city, which means that they are going to ultimately connect physically with trails and roads.

On the west side of Pasco, we’re wrapping up our plans to build our newest community, Angeline, which will be along Suncoast Parkway. It’s 6,000 acres, and the lynchpin for that is the Moffitt Research Center. So we’re super excited about that opportunity as well. Pasco County is huge. We’re still active in Hillsborough County, but we also see activity stretching into Manatee County, where we’ve got a couple of new communities that will come online in 2023.

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What factors make these communities successful?

Metro was the first to put a lagoon in. And certainly that has ramped up a lot of attention for our communities. It’s a unique amenity. There are others now starting to think about lagoons, but we were the first. And we like to think that we’ve perfected the lagoon technology.

Epperson has been open now since 2018. It’s not just interesting from the visual aspect, but to go in and spend the day there and paddleboard or kayak or just have a drink at the swim-up bar. We don’t have red tide in our lagoons. So having that has really become a key place where people connect. And it’s not just about swimming, because we also do things like concerts, yoga and trivia night. All that happens at the lagoon. That’s really lifted our sales.

Who’s interested into moving into these communities now?

The good news about a master plan is you can attract all kinds of people. You can serve all kinds of income levels and certainly from all locations. With Tampa being such a key relocation market, we do see a lot of out-of-market activity primarily from the northeast, like New York and Washington D.C. But also our biggest sources are also within the Tampa area or within Florida. We’ve seen some move up from South Florida to Tampa, in search of more value.

From a pricing perspective, we try to serve the entry-level buyer all the way up to the luxury move-up buyer. So you’ve got a wide swath for people who enjoy living in master-plan communities. And we’ve seen that trend of having more and more out of market interest continue, because Tampa has become such a beacon for growth.

Is that something Metro was planning for when building these master-plan communities? Or was it a surprise how much interest came from outside of the market?

Historically, in this market, we would expect about 30 to 40 percent of our sales to be from out of market. Now, we’ve shifted to more like 60 percent. And I don’t think we could have seen what we couldn’t have seen the pandemic coming, right. But one of the impacts of the pandemic is people are able to work from anywhere, and they can choose to live in a sunny place like Tampa Bay and in a great community. We’ve seen that number of relocation buyers grow as a result.

How do you plan for all the things that have changed since the pandemic?

Certainly making amenities accessible to people that allow them to get outside more. The lagoon is not just about swimming, you can actually go set up on a laptop and work, which is a pretty cool thing to do. So we accommodate for people who want to be more mobile, like putting high-speed internet connections where they need to be.

We’re fortunate to have a science, technology, engineering and mathematics school opening just outside of Epperson this year called Kirkland Ranch Academy of Innovation. So having a school that is WiFi enabled, and high-tech focused is an important part of the community experience. Angeline will also have a STEM school open up next year. People like to have schools close to their communities, close to where they live. There’s nothing better than letting your kids ride their bike to school when you know it’s safe and connected.

What are some difficulties of trying to build now?

If we could put lots on the ground faster, I would be thrilled. The demand is so strong. But it takes a long time to get the construction plans approved by the municipality, and then put on the ground. Getting the resources to build lots has been challenging. There’s so much construction happening. Labor has been a challenge and to some degree supplies have been a challenge. But you know, being one of the largest privately-owned residential developers in Florida, we have some sway. Size has its advantages.

Is it getting harder to find space in the Tampa Bay area?

It certainly pushed us to go further out from the from the central core, but the opportunities to create towns, like this Angeline project - it will be a new town in Pasco County with an employment center within it. And so going further out to West Pasco County isn’t as far out as it used to be.

We’re looking at places even further north into Hernando and other markets as well. We’re based here in Tampa Bay, and we love Tampa Bay, but we’re seeing opportunities in Jacksonville and Orlando as well. You have to be willing to go a little further out to create a destination for people to come to live. That’s what we do.