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Sunday Favorites: Pre-platted Communities Struggle with Growth, Vision

Published Sunday, July 21, 2013 12:05 am
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Publications advertised Florida as the new frontier. 

NORTH PORT -- Next week North Port city commissioners will decide whether a 12,000 square foot Dollar General is the right fit for their city. It’s a heavy decision, one that could find the city embroiled in a mutli-million dollar lawsuit if rejected, or a few new jobs, some new tax dollars and readily available, cheap goods if approved.

 

The decision is not a make or break for the city by any means, despite what legislators and Dollar General haters think. But it illustrates a larger issue for Florida cities like North Port; pre-platted, sprawling bedroom communities that had no vision, no design and were just a pure land grab when purchased. Now that they are established, they are struggling with commercial development, as well as smart growth.

 

North Port was one of nine communities developed by Robert, Elliot and Frank Mackle, a trio of brothers who founded the General Development Corporation in 1954. Along with cities like Port St. Lucie and Deltona on the east coast, they snatched up large tracts of undeveloped land, chopped it into pieces, and sold it at ridiculously cheap rates to people who more often than not had never even seen the place where they would one day live.

 

It was all part of the Florida dream – that post WWII off-shoot of the American Dream, where Midwesterners and northerners turned away from their homeland and looked south. It wasn't enough to have one house, after all, when two were better and the second one was waiting until you were old enough to actually enjoy it.

 

That's what the Mackle Brothers were selling, along with their counterparts, the Rosen Brothers, who first set eyes on Red Fish Point, Lee County, in 1955, a peninsula that jutted out into the Caloosahatchee across from Fort Myers. The brothers visualized what would one day become Cape Coral.

 

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Born and raised in Baltimore, Md., the Rosens were hustlers, plain and simple. They made a small fortune long before they decided to become real estate mavens, hawking cheap cosmetics and appliances on television, which, at the time, was still an untested fledgling medium.

 

They heard of the success the Mackle family was having in Florida and, like any good hustlers, thought, “hell, we can do that … and we better do it." In Lies That Came True, by Cape Coral historian Eileen Bernard, the Rosens are painted as ne'er-do-well sycophants, chartering a plane out of a former Air Force Base in Fort Myers to survey what would eventually become their empire.

 

They paid $678,000 for 103 square miles of land in 1957, a price that, decades later would come close to that of high end waterfront homes in Cape Coral during the housing boom.

 

In 1958, with a few square miles cleared and a few dirt roads dug out, the Rosens had constructed a small hotel, a diner and an ambitious marketing campaign that sent mailers out to homes across the northeast and Midwest, promising a Florida waterfront lifestyle. They would take prospective clients up in their Cessna, giving them sandbags to drop on pre-cut lots as they flew by so they could "choose" their dream homestead.

 

While the Mackles didn't have such high theatrics, they had their sights set on a larger scheme, one that included multiple communities in several parts of the state. They propagated a "$10 down, $10 a month" motto and set up cities like North Port, once known as "North Port Charlotte," across Florida.

 

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Early development in Cape Coral.

What the Mackles, nor the Rosens, could have envisioned, or likely cared to, was that their sprawling communities were not prepared for the success they would eventually achieve. Currently, Cape Coral has over 150,000 inhabitants (the same amount as ALL of Charlotte County), while North Port boasts nearly 58,000 full time residents.

 

Both of these cities have a residential tax base that hover in the 97 percent range, relying solely on property taxes to fund a fully functional city with multiple departments, hundreds of employees and many, many problems.

 

As these communities continue to struggle with declining revenue, legislators (many of which are the same kind of Florida visionaries) must decide how to diversify their tax base if they want those cities to stay solvent. Even a city as old and big as Detroit is struggling, recently filing for bankruptcy after decades of mismanagement, population flight and the loss of revenues.

 

So, a Dollar General could be a vital addition for a city such as North Port. However, legislators of these Mackle Communities (which all have streets named "Elkcam," their surname spelled backwards) will likely continue to struggle with these types of decisions; decisions that are routine at best in other cities across the state.

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