Our Neighborhoods | University Park Country Club: where members become mates

A diverse group makes University Park Country Club 'a great community'

jajones1@bradenton.comJanuary 12, 2014 


University Park Country Club has 27 holes of championship golf designed by Ron Garl.

You'll find about one upscale home for every one of the 1,226 acres. There's a gate to keep residents secure, and there are plenty of amenities.

But resident after resident says that what sold them on the community is what they first saw: the very long, winding drive through a forest to the front gate.

They speak of it as a feeling, a reverie almost, that soothes the spirit and lowers the blood pressure.

It seems to start immediately upon pulling off University Parkway onto The Park Boulevard, located about two miles west of Interstate 75.

"When my husband makes that approach, he instantly relaxes. A canopy of trees envelop you as you drive in," says Becky Suverkrup, president of the University Park Women's Club.

In a way, Suverkrup says, it's more like a park than a community.

Pat Neal, who developed the property with his British partner Rolf Pasold, recalls laying out the entrance while walking with his son, John, who was then 13.

The twisting entry is designed to protect wetlands and save the old growth forest, a reminder of the property's history as a hunting preserve owned by 26 State Farm Insurance executives.

"John and I walked the property and marked every tree leading to the golf course," Pat Neal says. "It turned out to be such a pretty place."

John Neal remembers accompanying his father out to the shell road that would become University Parkway. They would first stop at a small store near Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport and buy cheese sandwiches and soda, because there was nothing else in the area.

Anyone who drove down that shell road east of the I-75 overpass would come upon Schroeder-Manatee Ranch property and see a sign that read "frontier justice beyond this point." That was in the days before there was a Lakewood Ranch, John Neal says.

There were many challenges along the way to opening the University Park community in 1991, including buying the property in 1979-80 from the State Farm insurance executives.

Among those owners were some high-octane Florida politicians, including insurance commissioner Bill Gunter and education commissioner Ralph Turlington.

Although Pat Neal was already an experienced home builder and a state senator from 1978-86, the massive University Park Country Club project pushed him beyond his comfort zone.

Neal partnered with Pasold, an entrepreneur and England's largest manufacturer of children's wear, who was then living in Manatee-Sarasota and provided the financial muscle to get the project done.

As a result of the partnership with Pasold, University Park Country Club streets have very English names, such as Devonshire Place, Albermarle and Notting Hill.

Today, University Park Country Club is close to buildout, although new homes are still being sold in three high-end neighborhoods: Grosvenor Gardens, Wimbledon and Lansdowne Crescent.

Out of nearly 1,200 homes, only 33 are on the market.

• • •

University Park Country Club has its share of inventors, authors, doctors, entrepreneurs, characters and personalities.

It's a diverse group of neighbors who include the "very rich to those who struggle to pay their assessments," says one resident.

They include a woman who once wrote songs for the Captain Kangaroo children's program; a beloved head chef from London who knows his rock 'n' roll; men who satisfy their competitive sides on Saturday mornings through remote-controlled sailboat races; a high-achieving women's club that embraces good works in the community; and even a motorcycle group.

It's also a low-key community, where life is good, but residents can be stirred to action.

"We can mobilize ourselves," said John Whyte, the elected resident representative for the University Park Community Association. The two other members of the association are still appointed by the developer.

Residents have sometimes been chafed by developer control, but for the most part "it's a happy place," Whyte said.

The association represents 33 neighborhoods and manages the privately owned roads, landscaping, sewage system and retention ponds.

Residents pay $454 every quarter in fees to the master association, plus $938 to $1,942 quarterly, depending on their neighborhood.

When Wal-Mart was seeking to open a store near University Parkway and I-75, the association formed a private entity that funded a successful fight against the mega-store. The association also successfully lobbied for a left turn arrow into the community after several accidents at the intersection with University Parkway.

So far, however, University Park residents say they have been happy with Benderson Development Co., particularly with The Mall at University Town Center, slated to open later this year, and the rowing facility that will be hosting the world championships in 2017.

"All that Benderson has done is fascinating," Whyte said. "They have built a really great relationship with us."

Whyte was formerly a partner with Ernst & Young, today known as EY, in Manhattan. He and his wife were planning to retire to Europe, and were looking for a summer home in Florida.

Just 30 minutes before they were to drive to Tampa to catch a flight to New York, they stumbled upon University Park Country Club.

The tranquil drive down The Park Boulevard to the front gate instantly won the Whytes over, and instead of a part-time home, they found a primary residence.

"There was no research, no analysis," Whyte said.

• • •

The Park Larks, a singing group drawn from the University Park Women's Club, started out in 2003 performing Christmas carols during a holiday tour of homes.

The group has since taken on a life of its own, presenting holiday and spring programs throughout Manatee and Sarasota counties.

Director Barbara Staton, who wrote songs for the pioneering Captain Kangaroo children's program, has taken the Larks on the road to perform for The Sarasota Orchestra Association, The Asolo Guild, assisted living facilities, churches, Just for Girls, and many more.

Staton has quite the resume as a musician and television teacher for the Georgia Education Television Network. In addition to her work with Captain Kangaroo, she composed many songs and is the author of a national music textbook series.

Many of her recordings were made in the home studio of her late husband, Merrill.

Bob Keeshan, who as Captain Kangaroo gently presided over a set that included Grandfather Clock, Mr. Green Jeans, Bunny Rabbit Dancing Bear, was much as he seemed on TV, Staton recalls.

"He was a wonderful, kind person, and very sincere in what he was doing," she said.

Now, many years later, she is happy to be working with the Larks.

"It brings together a group of us who really care about each other," Staton said. "I feel like I have 15 sisters. The friendships really shine through."

Another Park Lark, Joyce Giberti, says most University Park residents don't have their families here, so their neighbors become their family.

"I always feel like we live in a village, and this is our village. It's the people who have bought here and live here who make it a great community," Giberti said.

• • •

It seemed like a tranquil -- if gray and cold -- Saturday morning with eight men standing on the bank of a lake, remotely controlling miniature sailboats.

But soon it was clear that there was frustration in the air, as the sailors competed in races with one another, each seeking an elusive puff of air to get their sailboats skimming toward the finish line.

"Tell me again why they call this relaxing," one of the men said to no one in particular.

It is a fun sport, but it is nerve-wracking, too, said Dave Wilson.

"Especially when someone else gets the air, and you don't," he said.

The men broke the tension with frequent jokes, poking fun at themselves.

"Dave," one of the sailors said, "after the photographer leaves, can we let the groupies come in?"

Every Tuesday, members of the University Park Sailing Club get together to practice for their Saturday races.

"It's all about figuring out the air. I was first off the line, and now I am last," Wilson said.

Lloyd Kramer makes an observation that captains of sailboats of all sizes make when there is little wind:

"It's frustrating."

• • •

The University Park Women's Club, with 370 members, is one of the most active organizations at University Park Country Club. It's a social organization, but also has a significant charitable focus.

The club started in the founding president's living room 13 years ago, said Becky Suverkrup, this year's president.

Just for Girls in Bradenton has been adopted by the club the past two years and is the recipient of about $40,000 from the University Park women.

"People are so generous in spirit and pocketbook," she said.

During their recent holiday luncheon, 145 guests brought gifts for Just for Girls.

"We have a huge food drive several times a year. Folks come to us with huge bags of food. It goes to All Faiths Food Bank," Suverkrup said.

The club has also supported Safe Place and Rape Crisis Center, Mothers Helping Mothers, Manatee Children's Services, Food Bank of Manatee, Children's Guardian Fund and Habitat for Humanity.

• • •

Many of the activities at University Park Country Club center around golf and tennis, said Mary Conklin, a member of the women's club and a real estate agent working in the community.

Every house sold at University Park Country Club in the past seven years has been required to join the country club.

"We have had an amazing result. It's growing our club. And it gives new residents an opportunity to be involved in the community," Conklin said.

Suverkrup notes the club's new member census in 2013 was the best in many years.

"Our membership continues to grow," Suverkrup said.

They note that University Park Country Club is far from just a retirement community. Children from the community attend Willis Elementary School at Lakewood Ranch, Braden River Middle School and Braden River High School.

• • •

Andrew Bonner calls it the best right turn of his life.

He spotted the fifth hole of the golf course while driving down University Parkway, and turned into the country club.

That was 10 years ago, while he was visiting the Manatee-Sarasota area from New York.

"I play golf and I drove in to see the head pro who happens to be English," Bonner said.

As it so happens, Bonner is from London, and he quickly found a new job as head chef.

"I don't call them members anymore. I call them friends. I look at them as my mates," Bonner said.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.

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