With a new name and a rebrand, Wellen Park officials, despite the pandemic, are optimistic about the near-term future.
A Florida housing community is all well and good. But with Wellen Park, in south Sarasota County, Rick Severance believes he’s got the opportunity to create something way better than well and good.
Severance is in prime position to know. He’s spent two decades turning Florida developments into master-planned communities that, above all else, he says, offer a resident a sense of place. Prior to Wellen Park Severance was president of Babcock Ranch, a solar-powered master-planned town in north Lee and south Charlotte counties. And for six years in the early 2000s, Severance oversaw residential real estate, lodging and commercial real estate for Seaside, a New Urbanist-styled town in the Florida Panhandle. Known for its pastel-colored homes with porches and white picket fences, Seaside was named Time magazine’s Development of the Decade in the 2000s.
“I’m a bit of a place-maker,” says Severance. “That’s how I’m wired. When you get to be part of making these great places, that’s what really motivates me. I enjoy the end result of it.”
Wellen Park is Severance’s latest canvas. Adjacent to the Tamiami Trail corridor between Venice and North Port, it has some 7,500 residents. Toronto-based Mattamy Homes, the largest homebuilder in Canada, bought the land for Wellen Park in 2014 in a partnership with Vanguard Land. The two entities bought the tract, 9,600 acres, from Synovus Bank for $86.25 million — at the time one of the largest residential land deals in the nation. Formerly known as Thomas Ranch, Mattamy bought out Vanguard Land’s stake late last year and now owns 98.5% of the property.
The community has space to grow its population nearly tenfold, to 60,000 residents and 22,000 homes. It also has room for some three million square feet of commercial space and is already home to something few other master-planned communities can claim: major league baseball, with the spring training facility of the Atlanta Braves.
While Severance is coming into the project at year five, it’s still young enough that there’s a host of obstacles and hurdles to overcome. Taking lessons from past projects, Severance prioritizes transparency with all the parties — employees, residents, local officials “When you are doing something new and innovative,” he says, “the biggest challenge is communication.”
On the ground, some challenges are on the residential side, ranging from a forthcoming 230-unit multifamily project to a planned senior-living complex with nearly 200 residences. Others are on the commercial side, from a downtown to a Publix-anchored plaza. There’s also a recreational side to the project, including an 80-acre lake being excavated. “It’s both very exciting and very daunting,” says Severance. “We have a lot going on.”
One of the recent things to go on was a name change — a somewhat unusual step to take for a project that had already begun to gel in the larger community. The new name, Wellen Park — which translates to waves in German and wellness in Dutch — replaces the first name, the West Villages.
The West Villages name remains, and is now a district within Wellen Park, along with new districts Playmore and Downtown Wellen. Severance says the change is both a practical and pointed move.
On the practical side, the developer didn’t own web domain names and other entities with West Villages. So as far back as 2014, says Severance, the plan was to create a loftier brand. “We couldn’t maximize the return (on the name) because we didn’t own it, he says.
A more pointed issue: the No. 1 master-planned community in the country in sales is The Villages, 160 miles northeast of Wellen Park in Sumter County. But the Mattamy project has never been part of the Villages, a senior and retiree community. “Not only were we not affiliated with them,” says Severance, “we are also not age-restricted.”
Severance joined the Wellen Park team in June 2019. Home sales were strong in the second half of 2019, and through the first two months of 2020, like many other businesses, Wellen Park was having a record year. March and April were off, but Severance says May, even with showings at nearly a standstill, beat expectations. That gives him hope for the latter half of 2020. “It’s amazing to me how many people are willing to make a significant life purchase in a digital environment,” he says.
And despite all that’s going on in the world central to coronavirus, one of Severance’s up-at-night worries is decidedly old-school: hiring and retaining top people to manage and sustain Wellen Park’s growth. From his past experiences, Severance says he looks for curious problem solvers when hiring, and people bound by a bigger cause. “Vision and passion are hard to come by, but when you have them both together, he says, “you can really do great things.”