When you walk into the boardroom in JD Porter’s office in Wesley Chapel, one of the first things you see is a brick. It hangs in a shadow box on the wall, and is from the home that his grandfather, James “Wiregrass” Porter, once lived in on S.R. 54, currently the site of the Discount Auto Parts.
It’s a reminder. This isn’t just land Porter is developing in Wiregrass Ranch.
For years, it was that reminder that kept the Porter family from selling the land it has owned and lived on since 1946 to the highest bidder. They entertained offers, met with many deep pocketed investors from New York and Chicago and similar places, and wondered what it would take. Some was sold in 1972 — to be later developed as Saddlebrook Resort — and a bit more for the communities at Williamsburg and Meadow Pointe.
Over the years, the Porters have turned away millions of dollars in offers to sell it all. The current 5,100-acre Wiregrass Ranch DRI, which is being developed by the Porter family’s Locust Branch, LLC, extends from S.R. 56 north to S.R. 54, and west to east from Bruce B. Downs (BBD) Blvd. to Meadow Pointe Blvd.
“We had people asking to buy it for 20 years,’’ JD says. “There were a lot of bridesmaids out there, but we never found someone that we fell in love with.”
What they fell in love with was a vision to build the land out themselves. The offers, they still keep coming. But, with the family’s name so closely tied to Wiregrass Ranch, JD says it has become a project for the family to build a community and leave behind a legacy about which everyone can feel good.
“Everyone said, ‘Let’s make this something we can be proud of,’” JD says. “That’s what I grew up hearing. Let’s make it so we will be happy coming back here 20 years from now, 50 years from now and saying, ‘Man, we did a good job.’”
While the brick — as well as oil paintings of turkeys in a field and “Wiregrass” Porter, in denim overalls, standing on the family’s ranch — pay homage to the family’s roots in the community and guides their business principles, another wall shows the results of their resolve, among them framed color photos of Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel and the Estancia and The Ridge communities.
At Pebble Creek Golf & Country Club in New Tampa last week, Porter updated the Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce at its monthly Economic Development Council meeting. The meetings generally draw a few dozen local business leaders; a chance to hear Porter reveal what might be next in Wiregrass Ranch drew almost 100.
“He is a visionary, and he sticks to his guns,’’ Chamber vice-chair of Economic Development Mercedes Hale told the audience. “He is making sure his vision, and his family’s vision, is maintained throughout. They have really put us on the map.”
The cautious and patient development of Wiregrass Ranch began in earnest around 2002, Porter says, when the family took a long hard look at the kinds of things that would make a great community.
While many developers lead with homes, the Porters filled what they felt were more important needs first.
The open-air Shops at Wiregrass, which opened in 2008, is considered by many to be one of the critical anchors in Wiregrass Ranch, but Porter notes that before the mall was built, his family had already donated the land for John Long Middle School and Wiregrass Ranch
High, both of which opened before the mall opened its doors in 2008.
The Porters envisioned Mansfield Blvd. and the nearby area as an “educational corridor.” They left land for expansion, before they even knew that one day, Pasco-Hernando State College (PHSC) would take root in Wiregrass.
Also before the mall opened, says Scott Sheridan, the Locust Branch COO, the land for what would become Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel (FHWC) already had been sold as well.
Porter, who grew up on the land where the hospital now sits, remembers his own long trips to what was then called University Community Hospital (and is now Florida Hospital Tampa) on E. Fletcher Ave., “where we would have to go when I was an idiot as a kid and did something stupid,’’ he jokes.
That’s why FHWC is special to Porter.
“It filled an important need for everyone out here,’’ he says, and if you make him pick the crown jewel of his work developing Wiregrass Ranch, he does point to the hospital. He says it was given a sweetheart deal to pick up an additional 16 acres when it was trying to buy just 40, because Porter was convinced it would grow and create more jobs in the area. He was proven right, as FHWC has already expanded once and still has room to continue growing.
Porter also takes pride in being right about Raymond James Financial, which was announced in 2011 and has been a long and painstaking process. After years of doubts fueled partly by T. Rowe Price scrapping plans in 2014 to expand to Pasco County, land is finally being moved at the 65-acre Raymond James site at S.R. 56 and Mansfield Blvd.
Although a proponent of small busines, Porter, says Raymond James, with the potential influx of 5,000 jobs into Wesley Chapel and a huge effect on surrounding businesses and developments, is a game-changer.
Some things, like the fact that Wiregrass Ranch has four power substations when Porter says most areas are lucky to have two, aren’t as heralded as a new business but are invaluable in attracting them, especially those in technology and medical.
While people eagerly await the next big thing and bask in the big splashes the developer family has made, Porter thinks sometimes, major things like the North Tampa Behavioral Health (NTBH) Hospital on S.R. 56 east of Mansfield Blvd. and the Beach House at Wiregrass Ranch assisted living & memory care facility get somewhat overlooked.
But, NTBH already is expanding too, as it is adding a veterans wing.
“Those are home runs anywhere else,’’ Porter says.
In a short time, the Porter family has delivered on its vision to provide things the community needs, even at the expense of their bank account. Schools, a mall and a hospital are things that some communities wait a lifetime for.
A sports complex on land the Porters donated (see page 4) is working its way through governmental approval, luxurious homes, apartments and condos will soon fill in the DRI along with an age-restricted community, and land is set aside for two additional new elementary schools and a state-of-the-art town center is on the horizon as well.
Porter and his family aren’t done yet. Not even close, really. Consider: despite all of the recent growth and expansion, Wiregrass Ranch is only 17 percent developed, a fact that drew a few gasps at the EDC meeting.
“Still in its infancy stages,’’ Porter says.
In the next 20 years, Porter says he’d like to make 20 more big announcements, and thinks he will. He hinted at the reveal of a big project by the end of the year, something bigger than Wiregrass Ranch has seen before.
But, Porter says, we’ll just have to wait for that one.
“The best is yet to come,’’ he says.