PALM-AIRE -- It took vision and a giant leap of faith to develop Palm-Aire.
Developers started in 1955 with 1,400 sandy acres covered in pine and palmetto -- and not much else. They started from scratch with few connecting roads, no neighboring communities, and lacking in convenient shopping.
That humble beginning is hard to imagine today when looking at the leafy trees lining Palm-Aire streets, the gently rolling golf courses, and the modern amenities and neighborhoods along University Parkway. One of the most significant amenities is the big University Town Center mall now under construction just down the street.
Marilyn Nordby moved to Palm-Aire a decade ago from Boston, attracted not by the golf or the storied history of Palm-Aire, but by the beauty of the community and the ease of access that it offered to local arts events and the beaches.
She also quickly discovered a sense of community through the Palm-Aire Arts
Association, which holds an annual arts show and raises scholarship money.
"I got involved with the arts association almost immediately and it was a wonderful entree into the community," she said. "I never would have learned as much about the community without the art association."
No, it's not so apparent today that the building of Palm-Aire took the efforts of four different developers over the years, working virtually from scratch.
The first developers, Michael Freeman and Jacob Nalven, ran out of money less than a year after buying the property in 1955. They sold to David Baird's Cooper Creek Company, resident Woody Wardlow writes in a history he researched for the community.
In 1957, Baird completed the golf course at DeSoto Lakes Golf Club Colony, as it was called then, and started work on the clubhouse.
"For the first year or two business on the course was dreadful," Wardlow writes in his history of Palm-Aire. The course averaged less than 10 rounds of golf played a day.
Perhaps the location and limited transportation played a role in the slow launch of DeSoto Lakes.
Initially, the main entrance was off Lockwood Ridge Road, which would take motorists to Sarasota, but not to Bradenton.
And University Parkway, which today provides the main entrance to Palm-Aire, was in 1957 called County Line Road. It was merely a narrow dirt road.
Golf pro turns the tide
Either out of desperation or inspiration, Ted Kroll, a two-time member of the U.S. Ryder Cup team, was hired in 1958 as DeSoto Lakes' first pro, and Jimmie Demaret and Jackie Burke were recruited to bring famous golfers to play DeSoto Lakes.
The young course began to attract national attention.
"The first developers were great promoters and dreamers," Wardlow said.
In 1959, All Star Golf was filmed for TV at DeSoto Lakes. That same year, the first residence of what would eventually be 2,200 was constructed.
Even bigger news followed in 1960 with the first DeSoto Open Golf Tournament, which attracted virtually all of the leading names in pro golf, and was won by Sam Snead.
DeSoto Lakes followed up the PGA event in 1961 with an LPGA event, won by Louise Suggs.
"Snead and Suggs are both Hall of Famers," said Ed Kornberger, president of the Palm-Aire Country Club. Not a bad beginning for a golf course carved out of what was then the middle of nowhere.
Cooper Creek sold its DeSoto Lakes holdings in 1968 to the Maurice Parker and Irving Levitt Corp. of Pittsburgh, who within a year brought in partner Florida Palm-Aire Inc., based in Pompano Beach.
Florida Palm-Aire acquired complete control in 1971 and sold the club to the members in 1990.
Some ideas that were floated over the years at Palm-Aire were more successful than others. The Pittsburgh developers at one time proposed building a row of high-rises at Palm-Aire and envisioned an eventual population of 10,000, Wardlow said.
The high-rises were never built, and Palm-Aire remains a low-rise community of about 3,500 residents.
In 1972, the name Palm-Aire West was adopted for DeSoto Lakes.
The Lakes Golf Course was opened in 1982, with singer Andy Williams in attendance. In 1984, hole 18 of the Champions Course was transformed into an island green.
Preserving its history
Kornberger wants to ensure that an illustrious history that includes names like Palmer, Player, and Sarazan is never forgotten. He is working on a historical display that will cover most of a long hallway wall connecting the country club banquet room and pro shop.
It's a history that helps make Palm-Aire unique, but it's not the only thing that defines the community, Kornberger said.
"It's about the people. It's not about the golf course or the facilities," Kornberger said,
Residents have a generous spirit and time after time have come to the aid of neighbors in need, he said.
Members also celebrate Palm-Aire resident Gus Andreone, who at age 102 is the second oldest PGA card-carrying pro in the country.
"Gus will go up and down the course and offer tips to players on how to improve their game," Kornberger said. "He still plays three to four times a week and shoots 80 to 85 rounds."
In honor of the beloved Andreone, members footed the bill for $100,000 in improvements to the teaching and practice range, and named it in his honor.
"Gus is not only a local legend but an institution," Kornberger said.
Palm-Aire looks ahead
As a private member-owned club, Palm-Aire Country Club officials have tackled the challenge of keeping the membership rolls healthy.
Or, as Kornberger calls it, the need for the club to attract younger players.
"How do we get younger?" he asks.
One approach is to offer weekend memberships, starting as low as $150 a month.
"We were the first in the area to do this. You begin to have a separate following of folks," he said.
Kornberger believes the limited memberships will eventually build the club following, and the desire for full memberships.
Not all of Palm-Aire's residents are golfers or members of the country club. But all are represented by the Palm-Aire Community Council, which works on areas of concern that affect residents, ranging from safety, to maintenance and beautification of common areas, coordination with the municipal services taxing district, and development and maintenance of a web site, said council President Donna Maloof.
Bill Eifert, a longtime Palm-Aire resident and former president of the community council, says it can make a real difference in residents' lives.
The council took the lead in calling attention to the need for traffic improvements at the University Parkway entrance.
"We had several really bad accidents there," Eifert said.
The council lobbied for improvements, which eventually paid off with the construction of two turn lanes onto Palm-Aire Boulevard, alleviating traffic backup on University Parkway.
Council members also successfully campaigned for a change in the comprehensive plan to maintain Whitfield Road through Palm-Aire as a two-lane road with a 30-mph speed limit, rather than expanding it to four lanes.
A slower speed limit helped hold down traffic and keep the road safe for cyclists and others, Eifert said.
The council also supported construction of the Conservatory, a passive park with a lake at its center. The park recently opened and is a "real gem" for the neighborhood, he said.
Maloof moved to Palm-Aire about a decade ago, attracted by the golf courses and the quality of life.
"It's a nice golf course location without paying for a guard at the gate," she said. "We have an equal feeling of safety, and an quality of life equal to the gated communities."
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1