North Port 'Community Gathering' draws West Villagers

North Port Fire Rescue chief Scott Titus and executive assistant Dawn Jones welcome visitors at Tuesday’s Community Gathering at the North Port Performing Arts Center. The event focused on issues in West Villages, a concentration of planned-development communities where thousands will live one day.

NORTH PORT — That West Villages was able to get its own audience with North Port’s leadership speaks to its influence.

North Port’s “Community Gathering” on Tuesday placed city commissioners and city manager Peter Lear before mostly residents of West Villages, a few hundred of them with questions and comments about inclusion, taxes and spending. They asked about possible redistricting to accommodate West Villages, beach access roads, the new North Port Aquatic Center and other issues relating to the giant community along U.S. 41.

But before questions could be answered, those at the North Port Performing Arts Center got a look at the city’s size, history and composition from Lear.

What came across in his PowerPoint was how quickly North Port had grown in just the last decade, a spurt that can in part be attributed to West Villages, a series of communities that at buildout could top 50,000 or more residents. The community had its own retail outlet open last week when the Publix, which anchors the new West Villages Marketplace, opened for business. The adjacent Town Center shopping complex is scheduled for ground-breaking next year.

West Villages is also home to the CoolToday Park, the spring training facility to professional baseball’s Atlanta Braves. That’s worth some $125 million.

“Where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re going,” Lear said in introducing the two-hour town hall that started at the stroke of 6 p.m., noting that land parcels in 1959 sold for $10 down, $10 a month. The former North Port Charlotte was founded by Miami-based General Development Corp., a company later mired in controversy and bankruptcy.

“Times have certainly changed,” he added, not with a little irony, as some homes in West Villages run north of $500,000.

Following Lear’s overview and welcoming comments from commissioners — Mayor Christopher Hanks was excused due to a family emergency — West Villages’ homeowners addressed them with concerns, observations and some thanks for their public service.

Waiting patiently in front seats to speak, West Villagers wanted the lowdown on property taxes/possible millage rollbacks, suggested redistricting to dedicate a commissioner to West Villages, objected to a reported $700,000 deficit at the new North Port Aquatic Center, which opened last month at a cost of about $12 million.

It was paid for with a countywide surtax. Commissioner Jill Luke shared that water polo clubs, possible sponsorships, rentals and a usage agreement with North Port schools could lessen the aquatic center’s expected deficit.

Grand Paradiso homeowner Kevin Shaughnessy, in questioning commissioners, asked for “fairness and integrity” in managing West Villages’ property taxes that help feed the city’s $175 million annual budget. That drew some applause, which seemed to emphasize an underlying theme that West Villagers in their geographic isolation sometimes feel … isolated.

While vice mayor Debbie McDowell shushed supportive clapping from visitors, she did urge more participation in citywide events such as parades, advisory boards and charter reviews. The city, she said, is “dying to have citizen participation.”

Commissioner Vanessa Carusone conceded that North Port hadn’t done well in communicating with and embracing West Villagers. The city, she said, had done a “very poor job at including West Villages. There’s no sense why we’re not including you.”

And with closing comments and an invitation for commissioners to visit West Villages’ IslandWalk community for a Nov. 20 forum, McDowell gaveled the Community Gathering ended with 15 minutes remaining.

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