Pat Neal has long been one of Manatee County’s most prolific builders. But now Neal’s “center of the universe” has shifted south to the Venice area where Neal Communities is building Grand Palm, his largest project in company history. Neal broke ground in September and at build out, plans to have about 2,000 homes on the 1,003 acres at River and Center roads.

Neal is also poised to nearly double the homes in the established Boca Royale Golf and Country Club in Englewood, building as many as 500 new residences in the community whose oldest homes date to the 1970s. Along with about 100 new homes in Sawgrass, Neal has become the Venice area’s most active builder.

With his penchant for making weekend and inspection visits on houses he builds, Neal plans to spend a lot of time in Venice in the coming years.

“Venice has some unique elements—the historic downtown and beaches and tight-knit community,” Neal says. “It’ll be a fun place.”

The family-run Neal Communities has expanded into Lee and Collier counties, too, as Neal and his son John have been snapping up hundreds of acres of land from banks and failed developers adding to their vast inventory of land, accumulated over decades.

Neal continues to expand on his home turf in Lakewood Ranch, building hundreds of $150,000 and up homes at Central Park at Lakewood Ranch.

The net result is that Neal Communities has emerged from the Great Recession stronger than it was during the real estate boom. The company sold 603 homes last year—a company record—and has more building permits in Sarasota and Manatee counties than anyone else. The company now has more than 200 employees and recently moved into a new headquarters in the southern portion of Lakewood Ranch that is in Sarasota County.

Neal says he knew the housing downturn was not going to be short term and adjusted his business plan.

“I’ve seen this movie six times before,” says Neal, 64, naming the boom and bust cycles since the Vietnam War.

In the pragmatic fashion that made him one of the most politically influential and successful businessmen in Florida, Neal restructured. When $550,000 homes abruptly stopped selling in 2007, Neal revamped his home designs to build 947-square-foot cottages, with garages in the back to maximize living space. He included architectural flourishes typically reserved for more upscale homes. The Neal cottages, for example, have columns and fish gill siding giving them a sea-side charm. Vaulted ceilings on some of the smaller homes give the homes a bigger feel. And positioning some windows higher near the ceiling let in natural light without taking up valuable wall space.

His approach was not without controversy in established developments. Some homeowners who purchased half-million dollar homes complained that the lower cost models down the block would drive down property values. A lawsuit was filed. Neal prevailed.

Neal points out that he did not abandon communities as some developers did, he just adjusted to market realities. The new market reality is that there is now pent-up demand. Homes that were purchased in the $200s in Sawgrass are now selling in the $300s.

“There is a crescendo of people who postponed buying,” Neal says. The future is bright as “one in six people spend some part of their life in Florida.”

On a recent afternoon, many of those people were looking at homes in the $80 million Grand Palm, sited on the southwest corner of Center and River Roads outside the Venice city limits.  From the Center Road entrance, it is not apparent how much activity is going on inside the new community.

A young mother in a minivan with two children in tow inspected her two-story house nearing completion on an Alachua Drive cul-de-sac, near a half-dozen other partially finished homes.

Five golf carts sat outside a half-dozen model homes on Sagewood Drive to take prospective buyers on tours of the development, while ten cars were parked in the customer lot. Hundreds of workers were scattered throughout the community working on about 70 houses in various stages of construction.

About eight miles south in Englewood, Neal purchased 104 acres of land in the 800-acre Boca Royale Golf and Country Club. The gated community off State Road 776 has been in continuous development since the late 1970s and has about 300 homes. Neal plans as many as 500 new homes.

“We refurbished the club house and it’s about 75 percent completed,” Neal says.

He is also building about 60 units at Arlington Cove Paired Villas in Englewood.

Neal’s first major foray into South County came in 2009 when he bought 86 lots in the Sawgrass neighborhood off Auburn Road. He immediately started selling $200,000 homes, about half the cost of the ones he was building a few years earlier.

“I still remember how to build a cost-effective house,” Neal says. “I started out as a builder of low-cost homes.”

That was more than four decades ago when Neal’s father started developing property in Florida. Pat Neal planned to be a banker after graduating from the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania. But his father lured him to Bradenton to join the family development business. They built their first condo on Long Boat Key. A typical 1975 Neal house sold for $25,600.

Neal founded his own company, Neal Communities, in 1981. And by the 1990s, his homes started getting bigger and more customized. In 2004, the median price of a Neal home was about $527,000.

Neal had lived in Florida only a few years before he jumped into politics. He had worked in Pennsylvania for the late Sen. Arlen Specter, who was then a Republican. Neal switched parties in Florida, calculating he had no chance at getting elected to a Democratic-controlled Legislature.

“The Republicans were not performing well,” Neal says. “It was a decision that worked for me.”

Voters sent Neal to the Florida House of Representatives in 1974 and then the Senate in 1978, where he became one of the most influential and effective politicians, serving on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

When Neal lost to a Republican in 1986, he became a Republican.

With his fundraising and political involvement, no one questions Neal’s Republican credentials but some party members were irked when he supported Jono Miller, a Democrat environmentalist, in his run for the Sarasota County Commission in 2008.

Neal makes no apologies. He got to know Miller as the two worked on environmental issues over the years.

“Jono Miller is a friend and always had a strong environmental record,” Neal says.

Neal may have been out of political office for more than twenty years, but he continues to be a political force, serving as chair of the Judicial Nominating Commission for the 12th Circuit, making recommendations on judges.

Neal served on the Board of Directors of Florida Tax Watch and was on Gov. Rick Scott’s transition team, where Neal helped reorganize the Department of Management Services.

A devout Catholic, Neal goes to mass every Sunday and once chaired the influential Christian Coalition of Florida.

He is heavily involved in philanthropic and community organizations, having served on the board of trustees at New College Foundation, the University of South Florida and the advisory board for the Trust for Public Land, among others.

“Pat has always been very concerned about the community,” says Eric Robinson, former chair of the Sarasota County Republican Party. “Not just what’s going on now, but what is going to happen in the future.”

Neal is truly a family business, but one that has brought on seasoned professionals to grow the business. Neal’s wife, Charlene, operates an affiliated interior design company. The couple’s son John operates the custom home division and this summer, their younger son, Michael, will join the company after graduating Boston College.

Having his family’s name on the houses he builds means the Neal family is a stickler for details, he says. His wife Charlene recently held a workshop on stucco to make sure there was consistency. Neal is known to climb on roofs to inspect them. And when he found duckweed in one of the community ponds “people heard about it,” Neal says.

“I don’t want to have to hide behind the cornflakes in a grocery store to avoid my customers,” Neal likes to say.

Neal estimates it will take about twelve years to build out the 1,999 homes in Grand Palm. The recreation center is nearing completion; workers were putting finishing touches on a nearby playground and tennis courts in late March. The development will include two pools—one for adults and one for children—a fitness facility, ball fields, picnic pavilions, dog parks and 28 miles of walking and bike trails. About one-third of the property is preserved land. The company has sold about 60 homes so far, 22 in February alone. About a third of the buyers are first-time homebuyers, Neal says.

Getting the project approved was no small task. Grand Palm is the first project approved under Sarasota County’s 2050 plan, adopted to create villages on rural land with walkable, compact neighborhoods with a variety of housing. The controversial 2050 plan, now under county review, dictates a certain amount of open space and commercial development. Neal said it took him seven years to get government approvals and $36 million to build the infrastructure. He grumbles about the process but says Grand Palm was worth the wait.

“It will have a good, long lasting impact on the community,” Neal says.

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