By BETSY CALVERT
It finally happened, but it’s not over.
The first 453 acres of Murdock Village passed into private ownership Monday, back onto the tax rolls, after 15 years of controversial public ownership.
New owner Private Equity Group handed over the promised check for $11.6 million before a ceremonial gathering of about 40 people in a county meeting room. PEG is expected to get that money back from the county in exchange for building roads, sidewalks, landscaping, sewer and water systems.
“Today is a time for us to focus on the future,” Commissioner Stephen R. Deutsch said to those gathered. “I may not be around to see it finished, but many of you will be.”
After years of economic stagnation at the jungle landscape, things will happen quickly, PEG President Donald Schrotenboer promised.
First, PEG will announce a new name and logo in a few weeks, he said. No more Murdock, he confirmed, saying it would not market well.
Second, the first big machines will move in about six weeks to begin clearing the wild landscape, he said. PEG just needs time to arrange contracts with construction companies already lined up.
Third, PEG wants to have model homes for sale in about a year. That means work on clearing and infrastructure will soon be going on at the same time as home building, Schrotenboer said. The site is authorized for up to 2,400 housing units, which Schrotenboer said would include a range of options from single-family homes to apartments.
Schrotenboer praised county staff and elected officials for how hard they worked to make the deal happen — 33 months with PEG alone.
“Thank you for your fortitude and perseverance,” he said.
And it’s not over, because now PEG will need the county to work with it through all of the upcoming construction and building permits.
He hinted, however, that PEG and home builders waiting in the wings do not expect the economic boom to last forever. Given the delays in getting the project going, he said, PEG has arranged for many of the next steps to happen in double time.
“Builders are trying to get to market before this economic boom fizzles out,” he said.
Schrotenboer expressed his bullish stance on development interest in Charlotte County.
“Congratulations,” he said. “Charlotte County is no longer the overlooked stepchild of Southwest Florida, and holds its own with the likes of Lee, Collier and Sarasota counties.”
Schrotenboer also acknowledged the critics.
“I know it’s been struck with controversy,” he said, but added he has received many letters from locals thanking PEG for its effort.
While not PEG’s biggest project, it has been its most complicated, he told the Sun. The public partnership required PEG to reveal much of its negotiations publicly. In the end, however, he said it will be a model for other developers to pursue with local governments.
The deal has been dogged by critics due to the $128 million debt the county incurred by 2004 to buy 879 acres in Murdock Village. The economic recession left the county with no suitors and growing debt as the region lost what little tax value it had to begin with.
After the gathering, Murdock Village Advisory Committee Member Eric Loche praised the commission for getting the job done. But when asked whether he thought the county got the best deal, he declined to comment.
“Leadership is about making decisions,” he said. “I’m happy to see they made the decision to move this thing forward.”
Deutsch cited anticipated revenue figures including $151 million in tax revenues over 20 years, 400 permanent jobs and $400 million in construction spending.
The second parcel in Murdock Village awaits a final purchase by Lost Lagoon LLC. Lost Lagoon is planning a smaller, commercial town center, complete with a water park. There has been no progress reported on that project for almost a year. That group is facing a deadline of Sept. 24 to submit its final plans.
A third parcel in between these two has no official buyer, but Economic Development Office Director Dave Gammon said he expects interest in that property to grow once development begins next door.