Murdock Village is more of an overgrown jungle today than it was 16 years ago.
That’s when the county announced it intended to buy all of the 4,000, 1960s-era lots on the 1,100-acre zone. The goal: create modern Port Charlotte’s first downtown.
“We sorely miss having an area like that,” said former County Commissioner Sara Devos, who was a commissioner in 2003 when a plan for Murdock Village was set in motion.
Two would-be developers backed out of deals, and then the county’s dream suffered a near fatal blow when the economic recession hit in 2008. Since then, the land has been left dormant. Meanwhile, the county is still paying off the $128 million purchase price.
“I wish that it was there 10 years ago,” Devos said of the new development that is poised to begin.
A new set of county officials runs the show today, and they are confident at least one developer will break ground this year. That developer is Private Equity Group, and its designated section of the jungle covers 453 acres.
“We are cleaning up a few minor issues in anticipation of closing within the next few months,” said Dave Gammon, the county’s interim director of economic development.
A $1 million milestone came and went. The 2016 contract had Jan. 20 as a deadline to close on the $11.6 million sale. That is the price for PEG to buy a large chunk of Murdock Village. PEG has already put down a $1 million down payment.
PEG will invoke the contract’s six-month-delay option, however, due to permitting issues with the state Department of Transportation, PEG President Donald Schrotenboer said.
A closing date has been pushed to March or April, Gammon recently told the citizen advisory committee for the Murdock Village Community Redevelopment Authority.
After closing, the contract requires PEG to get all its permitting and inspections done in 18 months.
Even with the delay, current County Commissioner Stephen R. Deutsch said he feels confident about the deal with PEG.
Another developer in the wings for a large section of Murdock Village is Lost Lagoon. Lost Lagoon is not as far along as PEG. It has not reached its real estate closing date. That developer is still seeking the county’s approval for an innovative downtown plan.
Of PEG, Deutsch said, “They’ve got $1 million in this game now, so I really can’t see many people walking away from $1 million.”
PEG has already received county approval for its infrastructure rebuilding plan.
After installing infrastructure, PEG’s contract with the county grants it permission to build up to 2,400 units of housing, including single family homes and apartments. On the commercial side, the contract allows 200,000 square feet, which would include a hotel.
Schrotenboer said the intent is for housing of all types, including affordable apartments.
But the county is not requiring PEG to provide all price points. The market will determine the mix, Schrotenboer acknowledged.
“We’ve got to serve the market,” he said. “The idea is to have a variety, so it’s not all one product type.”
“I find that troubling,” said Devos. “I wish that it would be required,” she said, of the full range of housing, including affordable.
A controversial part of both contracts is that the county will give the developer back most or all of the purchase price for building roads, sewers, water lines, sidewalks, bike paths and everything to make a town center. The developers must also remove all of the crumbling roads laid down in the middle of the last century by General Development Corporation, which went bankrupt in the 1990s.
Current commissioners justified the PEG deal, saying they believe a private contractor can do the road work quicker and cheaper than government. If PEG spends less than $11.6 million, Charlotte County keeps the change. If it costs more, PEG pays the price.
Underlying that stress over giving away the land is the fact that the county is still paying off the Murdock Village loan. Officials had assumed the loan would be paid by development — not taxpayers — all these years that the recession left fallow.
Also justifying the giveback to PEG, county officials point to $151 million in projected property tax benefits over 20 years plus $909 million in taxable sales.
Rumors of a new recession, fueled by the recent government shutdown, have not dampened PEG’s enthusiasm about the project, Schrotenboer said. It really is the road permits from the state that slowed things down. The state has a lot of requirements for anything that is attached to its roads, he said, and PEG is planning on rebuilding O’Donnell Boulevard to connect to both U.S. 41 and State Road 776. PEG and the state have been working on how long entrance and exit lanes can be, he said.
Charlotte County remains a location with great potential, Schrotenboer said, compared to its highly developed neighbors of Sarasota and Lee counties.
“We still remain very positive about the real estate market for the next couple of years,” he said. “The one thing Charlotte County does present is affordability.”
Deutsch dismissed negative commentary on the economy, saying media pundits speak without facts.
“No one knows where the economy is going,” he said. “I’m looking forward to breaking ground as soon as we can get the permits.”
In the two years it has been working with the county, Schrotenboer said, PEG’s plans for Murdock have not changed noticeably.
“It’s gone pretty much as we anticipated. The county remains extremely cooperative and enthusiastic. We remain bullish ourselves as to what this will do for Charlotte County.”
Once PEG gets the permits and closes the deal, the contract requires the company to start infrastructure work within 120 days, and complete it within 24 months. Schrotenboer believes it will take 16-18 months to do all the infrastructure work, after which, they can start on homes and apartments.
“Generally, homes come first,” he said.
“We ourselves are not a home builder. We will be bringing in other home builders … We’ve had a tremendous amount of interest with a number of builders.”
Some commercial and retail construction will probably go on at the same time as residential space, Schrotenboer said. He could not say what kind of commercial projects would come first.