On most days, builder Pat Neal has the key to building amenity centers for his developments.
But not on this day.
He simply didn't have the key. Really.
I was scheduled to meet Neal and his wife, Charlene, at the new Windward clubhouse and pool area, which just opened on Lorraine Road to the north of Fruitville Road, in Waterside at Lakewood Ranch. Whew! That's a lot of places all in one.
I had arrived early, so I induced a resident, who was trying out the facility for the first time, to let me in the gate.
It wasn't long before Pat Neal arrived and did what any typical American man would do. He tried the front gate, which was locked, of course, and then shook it a bit.
That gave me a story to tell — that I could get into a place the renowned builder and politician couldn't. Moving on up.
Moving on up was a thought that immediately struck me when I walked into the Windward amenity area, which opened Aug. 2. My own home is similar to the smallest offerings at Windward, but without the grandeur when it comes to amenities. In the back of my mind I was thinking, "I could live here."
That certainly wasn't why I scheduled the interview. I wanted this opportunity to talk with Pat Neal about the amenities arms race in our region.
After I let him in.
For those who stopped house hunting on site during and after the pandemic, the amenities upgrades are something to see in person, and it's likely more are on the way.
To be fair, this isn't like when Starla and I arrived in Lakewood Ranch and we went to our first dinner at the Lakewood Ranch Country Club/castle. Starla said she felt like Cinderella.
Many of these new communities are not that kind of grand, and they're not country club living. But it is as close as you can get on a budget.
This is definitely on a "wow" level that you might not expect from homes that are available to middle-to-upper-middle class folks.
In some ways, at least in Lakewood Ranch, it's required.
As the sprawl continues throughout Waterside, and east of Lorraine Road, between state roads 70 and 64, the different builders will be pitching more than just homes. They will be pitching amenities.
Think about the old Ford 150. In many cases, the truck was barebones tough with no bells and whistles needed. But as time went forward, they added heated seats and Alexa and mirrors that adjusted depending on what member of the family was sitting behind the wheel. Sure, the price went up, but mainly these were ways to separate from the competitors.
In the home sales world of Lakewood Ranch and beyond, builders are trying to find that edge. It appears more amenities are on the way.
Consider that in Windward, where prices start at $495,990, there are a resort pool and spa, a children's pool, a playground, a fitness center, two tennis courts, eight pickleball courts, two dog parks, sports fields, a trail system, a lifestyle director and a 9,600-square-foot clubhouse.
The amenities' bar is rising along with the new homes.
Nicole Mundy, who just moved to Windward, said the amenities were important to her family.
"It's beautiful, and they did a great job of making it adult friendly," she said of the separate adult and children's pools. "Amenities are very important. And the big thing for me is that the playground is connected to the pool area."
Pat Neal, who has built more than 19,000 homes in more than 90 communities in Florida over 50 years, likes what he hears, and he understands the amenities' arms race. Then again, he believes he has the secret weapon: Charlene.
Charlene Neal has worked more than four decades with her husband and carries the vice president of design title among her responsibilities. She works with architects to design the amenities and her task, completed with six assistants, continues to grow. Her job is more important than ever.
"Pat and I always have told our employees, 'People come to Florida, and they want to envision what life will be like,'" Charlene Neal said. "Our facilities are larger and more sophisticated now. People want outdoor space, they want big lawns, cornhole, shuffleboard. They want to be together and socialize. We stay focused on fitness and we find the right (healthy) surface for the trails. People want to be active."
Pat Neal said he always talks with Charlene about finding new features to enhance the amenities, and stay ahead of the competition. He said dog parks for big and little dogs (so the big dogs won't eat the little dogs) have gone over well.
Trails throughout the properties have been enormously popular. Frisbee golf courses are on the horizon. Yoga lawn events. A movie wall.
If they don't try it, someone else will.
Through it all, Pat Neal is very conscious that he can't price his main customers out of the market.
"We want each community to be unique,' said Charlene Neal, who doesn't design any two clubhouse and pool facilities to be identical. "We avoid one size fits all, but we have a budget, and we are very disciplined."
Pat Neal, who says the cost of amenities tend to spread out to between $6,000 and $12,000 per home in a community, always has been disciplined, but the pressure is coming.
"In a few places (where he builds), it depends a little bit on our competition," Pat Neal said. "Taylor Morrison's Esplanade Series is the most similar building product to ours. I would say other public builders are not as amenity friendly."
It all adds up to possibilities to those of us living in East County. Although growth can have its negative side, it also gives us choices.
As Pat and Charlene Neal left, I trotted over to the models.
Everyone in the pool.