BRADENTON -- A two-story, historic white house on the riverfront just south of the Wares Creek bridge is ground zero for a unique neighborhood revitalization experiment.
Lakewood Ranch builder John Neal and his wife, Rebecca, have sold seven parcels in the Ballard Park neighborhood for $284,661 to the City of Bradenton that they estimate to be worth $1.325 million, including the white house on the corner of 8th Avenue West and 17th Street West near downtown Bradenton, Neal of John Neal Homes said Thursday.
In return, the Neals will see if a rowing facility housed in the historic house and a public park on other parcels can revitalize the neighborhood around Ballard Elementary School, which has been suffering for several years with vagrancy and boarded up homes.
"I broke even," Neal said of the real estate deal itself. "I sold it to the city for exactly what I paid for it. But I had the good fortune to buy it right. The people before me had paid millions for the land."
The seven parcels, which are contiguous, range in size from 5,000 to 32,365 square feet, Neal said.
Of the seven, four parcels are right on Wares Creek and the seven parcels include six houses.
"The white house would be favorable," Neal said when asked if any of the six houses are worth rehabilitating. "It would cost more to rehabilitate the others than to start over because they would have to be brought to code."
Bradenton City Council member Patrick Roff and other city officials view the deal as a $1 million donation in land from the Neals.
"We are so thankful to John and Rebecca Neal for acquiring this land and generously donating it to the city," Roff said in a news release from John Neal Homes. "I am looking forward to turning around properties that have been nuisance problems for the past two decades or more, and in essence offering us a redo on the Ballard Park area."
Roff says he'd like to see a passive park on the largest parcel of donated land.
"That way there would be no need for improvements except for occasional mowing, and we would give the community a chance to access the freshly dredged Wares Creek for fishing, canoeing and kayak launching," Roff said.
Mayor Wayne Poston of the city of Bradenton said he would also like to use the land as a new community space.
"This generous donation would be perfect for a park or dedicated open space," Poston said. "That will encourage more resident interaction and really invigorate this part of the city."
Neal dreams of young rowers racing in the creek and out into the river and then, later, gathering at the big two-story white house with friends and family.
"I would say the current plans would be to have a rowing facility," Neal said. "The city will have to raise money. I will help them get a push behind it, I think the Downtown Development Authority would take a leadershp role just like they did with Riverfront Park. My understanding, from talking to Downtown Development Authority is that the facility would have a storage locker and meeting facility, I hope the city takes full advantage of this."
When Neal, who is the son of home builder Pat Neal of Neal Communities, and Rebecca, bought the "assemblage" of property in Ballard Park in 2011 they were not thinking rowing facility and public park.
They were thinking of some way they could build new homes and help that area, Neal said.
"I bought the parcels as an experiment to see if I could create renewal," Neal added.
His idea for the parcels at first was to build an enclave of cute two- and three-bedroom cottages which would sell for $150,000 to $250,000, he said.
He was all set for construction, before a conversation with Roff.
"I was approached by Patrick and he said the property would be valuable as a park for what would be a transitional neighborhood," Neal said. "Patrick was really convincing. He convinced me I could do the same thing by having a park there as by building the cottages."
Neal began to strategize. He contacted the Benderson Group, which had spearheaded the Nate Benderson Park rowing facility in Sarasota County near University Parkway. He also learned that students from Manatee County high schools must travel up to Fort Hamer Park in Parrish to practice their rowing.
"If kids row crew they have a one in two chance of getting a college scholarship to a good school in the Northeast," Neal said. "The chance for a football scholarship is much lower because so many participate in football.
"We needed a rowing facility on this side of the river," Neal added.
He confirmed that the waterway is plenty deep enough for rowers, even better now that it has been dredged, he said.
But can rowing really revitalize a neighborhood?
"I don't think a rowing facility of itself revitalizes a neighborhood, but open communal spaces gives character and character leads to strong neighborhood and strong neighborhoods lead to stronger communities," Neal said.