PARRISH -- Just seven years ago, North Manatee was poised to become a major area for development -- just when the recession hit area developers hard, and everything stopped.
The skeletons of that development are still visible to anyone who takes a short detour off U.S. 301 through neighborhoods such as Cross Creek and Gamble Creek, where roads run through overgrown lots. In Cross Creek, a subdivision that went belly-up, a community center complete with a pool stands in the middle of empty acreage; just three houses stand nearby.
When the bust hit, those developments went into foreclosure, but soon enough were snapped up by savvy builders who took advantage of rock-bottom prices and had the ability to wait out the economy.
Now that real estate is heating up again and the demand for new homes, in particular, is soaring, those developments are set to come roaring back.
Work has already begun.
The developers having the most success are the ones who didn't have to depend on credit during the downturn, and who now can take advantage of a tight inventory of existing homes and low mortgage rates for buyers.
Both builders Pat Neal and Carlos Beruff invest cash in their properties.
"We haven't needed the bank credit to do it," Beruff said. "Now all of us are beginning to get back to a norm and the banks are beginning to cooperate with people who are internally well-financed. The banks essentially are lending money to people who don't need it."
They are also building on the success of the last boom, which brought new schools, a YMCA and infrastructure for the developments they bought.
The future promises more development, especially if developers get the Fort Hamer Bridge linking North Manatee to Lakewood Ranch.
"Parrish is near the center of the universe for lots of people in the working world," said Neal, who had more than 100 local sales in March. "About a third of our sales are where one person lives in Sarasota-Bradenton and another might work in Pinellas or Hillsborough. For working people, it's a good compromise location."
Beruff, who began building north of the Manatee River 14 years ago, picked up Gamble Creek under his Medallion Home label during the recession and has already begun construction. Beruff is also expanding Twin Rivers, and he acquired River Plantation last year, giving him hundreds of acres of former farmland, pastures, oak hammocks and wetlands.
"We were very successful until the recession hit. It's taken about the amount of time we figured it would take for the market to start getting stimulated again," Beruff said. "The market won't be back to what I call a normal market until 2015. It's still sluggish."
But that hasn't stopped him and others from building actively south of U.S. 301, as Neal's Neal Communities and Beruff's Medallion Home dominate the Parrish area market. Ryland Homes, M/I Homes and Inland Homes are building farther north.
"As far as what's going to happen, we've been successful here for 14 years. We think with the advent of U.S. 301, of course, being recently four-laned up to 675, it creates a better corridor," said Beruff, who lives in one of his communities overlooking the Manatee River.
"We have an elementary school now that we didn't have when we started. Downtown Parrish is beginning to get a little more solid. They have a YMCA now that they didn't have when we started," Beruff added. "There is a sense of community here. That's one of the things that we like and we want to continue to support that."
Much of the proposed development in north Manatee County has already been platted and approved by the county. That means sewer and water service is reserved, density levels are set and standards that were approved before the recession remain in place.
"I think that you're going to see in the future there are two ways that it's going to go," Beruff predicted. "One will be driven by the Fort Hamer Bridge, which will give the area a different dynamic. Parrish will be its own Lakewood Ranch in magnitude."
The proposed bridge awaits approval from the U.S. Coast Guard, which could OK one of two paths across the Manatee River, eventually making it possible to drive from the center of Lakewood Ranch to U.S. 301. That would open a new route for commuters and for people who work or shop in eastern Manatee County.
"I think the bridge is coming along nicely," Neal said. "If the county commission approves the bridge, the bridge is designed and ready to go. It saves about 14 miles for someone driving to Lakewood Ranch. It will make Parrish more accessible to the rest of Manatee County, to hospitals, to shopping and to the 14,000 jobs in Lakewood Ranch. I hope it provides alternate access to Lakewood Ranch for safety and emergency evacuation as well."
While the bridge is still controversial and there are residents in north Manatee who regularly go to county commission meetings to oppose it, the pressure from growth may force a faster decision.
"We've got to get that built so Parrish can communicate with south of the river," said County Commissioner Larry Bustle. "Parrish certainly is growing, I think it's poised on the edge of growth. Since Parrish is in my district, I'm very concern about that. I would like to see them put together a plan and they need to tell us how they want to grow."
But existing approvals for development may have already decided the fate of North Manatee.
"If the bridge doesn't happen, then the 301 corridor will be its own community and that will be a different dynamic," said Beruff, whose public service includes chairing the board of the Southwest Water Management District and serving on the Sarasota-Manatee Airport Authority. "The north part of Manatee County is certainly feeding Manatee County, but it's also a bedroom community to Tampa and St. Petersburg."
When it comes to North Manatee as the southern link in the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority, Parrish was originally sited as one end of a planned light rail system connecting the cities.
"I certainly believe that will ultimately happen. I'd be hard-pressed to see it coming in 20 to 30 years because of the financial commitments and all of the other commitments the state and federal government has to struggle with," Beruff said.
"The Legislature this year has made some substantial changes with the private-public partnership rules that should make it easier for those things to actually function."
If rail comes, that could attract even more split commuters to north Manatee.
For now, developers are relying on low interest rates for mortgages to attract homeowners.
"We have had marvelous low interest rates and a huge uptick both in sales and now in the value of houses," Beruff said. "Case-Shiller home price indices show us that houses went up in value 9 percent across the U.S. last year."
Dee Graham, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7024. Follow her on Twitter @DeeGrahamBH.