JD Porter and his family don’t look at themselves merely as developers trying to make a buck. They look at themselves as curators of a 5,000-acre family heirloom that has been in the family since 1937, when James “Wiregrass” Porter bought the sprawling ranch land and moved to Wesley Chapel.
That land now has an elementary, middle, high school, a state college and multiple residential subdivisions.
There is a mall and a hospital, a hotel and a high-end car dealership, and so much more already standing, with a state road that was built with six lanes long before it actually needed that many lanes slicing through it.
“We’ve done some great things,” says JD, the developer and driving force behind Wiregrass Ranch’s residential and commercial expansion.
And there’s more on the way. Even as developed as his family’s ranch is, if you take a peek at what is still to come, it doesn’t even feel half done.
So, as the Wesley Chapel area surrounding Wiregrass Ranch explodes with lagoons and trendy shipping container crates, restaurants and town centers, Porter continues to bide his time and slowly build something different.
The State of The Ranch
“It’s good. It’s busy,” Porter says.
While nothing new has been announced recently for Wiregrass Ranch, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing new planned, or any negotiations ongoing.
In fact, there’s plenty new planned, and talks almost daily.
In poker parlance, Porter always plays his cards close to the vest, and will only reveal those cards well after the hand has been finished.
“I’m not trying to be coy,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’s just how we’ve always done business.”
While there won’t be any details announced until later this year, Wiregrass Ranch chief operating officer (COO) Scott Sheridan says it will be a busy time on the ranch.
“We’re pretty excited about 2020,” he says. “We don’t see any slowdown on the near-term horizon.”
Porter says he is content playing the long game. No flashy restaurants or activity centers or trendy grocery stores are coming anytime soon.
While others may be filling immediate needs and desires, “We are working on infrastructure” that in the end, will make Wiregrass Ranch vibrant and sustainable for years, like it did building S.R. 56 as a six-lane highway long before the area was bustling.
In The Plans
Porter says a 200,000-sq.-ft. office project will come out of the ground later this year.
“We have a unique blend of users,” he says. “It’s going to be nice.”
Porter also has submitted plans to build another retail strip on S.R. 54 at the northernmost edge of Wiregrass Ranch, next to the recently completed first retail project, which is anchored by a new Glory Days Grill, on the S.R. 54 side of Wiregrass Ranch, which runs all the way from 54 to south of S.R. 56. Another restaurant is planned for the latest budding retail project, but Porter says no leases have yet been signed.
But, later this year — Porter won’t exactly say when — you might have to buckle up for an announcement or two.
“There’s some exciting things coming down the pipeline,” Porter says. “Some of the things will be game-changers for the area that I don’t think anyone has expected.”
Who doesn’t love a little suspense?
Building The Donut
Porter has had plans for a town center — which he has claimed will serve not only as Wesley Chapel’s downtown but a downtown for the entire North Tampa Bay area — for a while now. But, before that project sprouts to life, he says it is important to build an apparatus — revolving around residential — that will support it, which they are doing.
“I know there has been a ton of stories about town centers recently,” he says (see story on page 6). “We’ve talked about that for, what, 15 years? But we’re working in a direction that surrounds that donut hole.”
Which would make that donut the residential support, Sheridan says. “We’re getting that donut, for lack of a better word, closed in.”
The town center would be located in the heart of Wiregrass Ranch. It will be connected to all of the development by a series of trails and sidewalks — a vast spiderweb, if you will, with the north-south spine running through the middle of it being the under-construction Wiregrass Ranch Blvd., which should be completed from 54 to 56 by 2023.
That road will have traffic-calming roundabouts throughout, another way that Porter and Sheridan are trying to stay ahead of the game.
Meanwhile, Wiregrass Ranch’s future town center area is slowly becoming surrounded by homes.
Estancia, The Ridge and the Arbors at Wiregrass Ranch, the Altis apartments and a Fairfield Inn hotel are already in place, and Persimmon Park and the 800+ home Esplanade 55-and-older community are under construction. And, now, S.R. 56 has been extended to U.S. 301, which will bring with it more homes and even more residents who will be flocking to the area.
Porter says he is thrilled to have Esplanade starting with Taylor Morrison Homes on board as the builder. The 55-plus community, the residents of which will likely consist of many retirees, will provide much of the daytime business when the town center is built.
“It was an underserved market, and a great fit for us,” Porter says.
More people means more businesses, which leads to a need for more entertainment and neighborhood retail, leaving developers with a greater responsibility to find the right combination to make the “live here, work here, play here” model work.
In the past, Porter has talked about a performing arts center in Wiregrass Ranch, but that is no longer necessary due to the one the county is building next to Cypress Creek middle and high schools to the north. But, something with a similar impact will take its place as an anchor.
“We are actively working on, and looking at, some unique catalysts in our town center,” Sheridan says.
“The end of the earth used to be Meadow Pointe Blvd., but that’s not the case anymore,” Porter says. “The town center is 10 times more viable than it was 10 years ago, and it was viable then. We’ve just been extremely patient to get the right blend.”
As for the town center, well, just you wait, says Porter says. It won’t be anchored by a Publix and a laundromat, he jokes. It will be something special.
“It will be a true, mixed-use, walkable, pedestrian-focused town center,” Sheridan says.
Raymond James Financial filed plans last year to build its massive 1-million-sq.-ft. satellite campus on 65 acres at the corner of S.R. 56 and Mansfield Blvd.
When that actually will happen, though, no one knows.
“They own the property. They have the permits. Everything is ready to go,” Porter says. “They are a big company and when they decide they are ready, they are going to do it. It’s been put on a silver platter.”
Since Raymond James, which will create thousands of new jobs when it finally builds its campus, closed on the property last year, Porter says other projects in Wiregrass Ranch have already created 2,000 jobs.
Another long-anticipated project is the move of the Publix grocery store from the corner of S.R. 54 and Bruce B. Downs Blvd. to a space across Wiregrass Ranch Blvd. from Walmart.
It’s still happening, says Porter, who adds that Publix may be looking to build two other stores within Wiregrass Ranch.
Wrapping It Up
Just consider the things that are open, underway or wrapping up this year:
•Esplanade and Persimmon Park: Persimmon Park, which is geared towards families and will have 340 townhome units by David Weekley Homes and ICI Homes, should have models ready to view and future homes ready to sell by April.
•The Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus of Pasco County will open in July, and will host its first event in September. The massive campus will feature a 98,000-sq.-ft. indoor sports facility, plus outdoor fields on the 80-acre parcel, and eventually a 128-room Marriott Residence Inn. The public-private partnership facility will provide an economic boon to the Ranch.
•And…AdventHealth Wesley Chapel: Built on the land where Porter was raised, is expanding, in partnership with Moffitt Cancer Center. A three-story, 100,000-square-foot medical office complex, with 28,000 square feet dedicated to a cancer outpatient center, is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
• Plus…Porter Campus at Wiregrass Ranch of Pasco Hernando State College (which started as a community college and has room for expansion) and Beach House at Wiregrass Ranch Adult Living & Memory Care. All of these are Wiregrass Ranch projects that have been patiently developed for years, and have come to fruition.
Pillars for building a strong community that will contribute to residential and commercial growth? Absolutely.
Developing Wiregrass Ranch is a job Porter says he takes personally and that he is in it for the long haul, he says, which makes his approach different, and more careful.
While he enjoys the competition from other developers and seeing what they will be building — and rooting for them, by the way, because he says he wants to see Wesley Chapel flourish — he feels he has a greater responsibility to make the right decisions.
“This land has provided a huge opportunity, not only for my family but the whole area,” he says. “We’ve been here 80 years, why wouldn’t we want to make it better for the next 80 years? That business model doesn’t work for publicly traded companies that have to make 25 percent for investors every year. That allows us to work on filling the gaps and being sustainable.”