UNIVERSITY PARK — As John Neal drives into University Park Country Club, the memories come flooding back as if they happened yesterday."
It was on the 1,200 acres here that John Neal learned to drive and also where the remnants of a tree house he built with his grandfather still lay hidden in the woods. He played the golf course here before it even had grass.
“I have a long history associated with this property,” says John Neal, president of the John Neal Homes division of Neal Communities. “It is a part of me.”
As the community celebrates its 20th year, Neal, now the exclusive builder in University Park, is creating a new chapter for both himself and for University Park with a decision to finish the community. Homes range from 2,041 to 3,161 square feet and now start from the low $400,000s. Only 35 lots, including 11 sites north of Honore Avenue that have been tied up in litigation with Manatee County, remain in the Kenwood Park, Hampton Green, Grosvenor Gardens and Wimbledon neighborhoods.
Neal shakes his head as he walks up to University Park Country Club’s banquet hall, a pathway around it winding toward a putting green, the golf pro shop and outdoor dining.
“This was just three pads (of concrete),” Neal says as his gaze sweeps the area. “They hadn’t picked the roof tile yet. It looks the same.”
In the mid-1980s, the University Park property was a hunting preserve collectively owned by seven individuals. The area was heavily wooded but surrounded mostly by farmland.
Neal spent much of his youth playing on the property with his father, Pat, and grandfather, Paul, who was retired and enjoyed hunting there.
“I didn’t care for shooting anything, and we never really saw anything,” John Neal says. “It was a gift to play on 1,200 acres.”
Then about 14 years old, John Neal took the wheel behind “Big Char,” his father’s bright yellow Jeep Wagoneer, on dusty farm roads. The vehicle, which Pat Neal says is the biggest car “he’s ever known before or since,” was named in honor of John’s mother, Charlene, who disliked the vehicle’s “rough” ride.
“We had fun talking to the truckers on (Interstate) 75 on the CB radio,” Pat Neal recalls.
In the summer of 1989, preparation for development began. John Neal spent nearly his entire summer with his dad at the property. Together, they marked trees to save along the community’s entrance boulevard, taking great care to preserve as many trees as possible, and even spent a month’s worth of Saturday’s laying out the entire one-and-one-quarter mile length of Park Boulevard with blue surveying tape.
“Our goal was to have the entry to University Park feel different than other communities,” Pat Neal says. “We planned the community so that the customer would feel that they were leaving the rest of the universe to come into the sanctuary of University Park.”
The first community within University Park opened at the same time the clubhouse and first 18 holes of golf opened in October 1991. Home prices started in the mid-$100,000s, although they peaked at more than $5 million during the 2005 real estate boom.
Into the future
During the boom, some of the more pristine lots — which John Neal now is offering for purchase — carried such high asking prices they didn’t sell, and there wasn’t a need to sell them immediately, either, he said.
“They are gorgeous, but they’ve been created to have homes on (them),” John Neal says. “With so many available lots in the market left over from the previous boom, utilizing existing lots was right for the community at this time.”
Although homebuyers are seeking good deals on homes under the current economic conditions, John Neal is confident sales in University Park will be strong.
“That (value homebuyers are seeking) can take many different forms, whether that’s the value of nature or value attributed to the security of being the last buyer in the community instead of the first,” John Neal says.
John Neal Homes sold two homes in University Park in the $800,000-range in January.
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].
New to Neal Communities, John Neal Homes now is offering an on-your-lot service, which allows the company to build on lots elsewhere in Manatee and Sarasota counties — and not just traditional planned development building in University Park or other communities.
“With our on-your-lot service, we can build any Neal home on an individual’s own lot,” John Neal said. “Given the advantage of our 40-plus furnished models, our customers will be able to see for themselves the high quality construction methods and superior design. This is a bit of a change from the usual on-your-lot home builder because we give our customers a complete price before we start so there are no surprises along the way.”
To use this service, the lot owner or his Realtor must meet with a representative of John Neal Homes to look at the site before presenting homebuilding options.
John Neal purchased his family’s stake in the University Park Country Club in January 2008 for $4.1 million from his father, Pat.
The Pasold family, Pat Neal’s original partner in University Park, retains its 50% stake in the country club and golf course.
John Neal continues to work with Charles Varah, who represents the Pasold family in its interests in University Park.
BY THE NUMBERS
1,200 — Number of acres University Park covers
1,165 — Number of existing homes in University Park
900 — Number of members at the University Park Country Club
95 — Percentage of University Park that already is sold out
31 — Number of neighborhoods within University Park
For information and a listing of available lots, move-in ready homes and floor plan options, visit www.homesbyjohnneal.com or call 351-7777 for University Park or 907-9220 for on-your-lot inquiries.
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