LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Ask Dick Vitale what he loves most about life in Lakewood Ranch Country Club, and the famed ESPN sportscaster rattles off a list of the area's amenities: the arts, the restaurants, Main Street
"If I had to put it in Vitale-ese, It's awesome, baby, with a capital A!" he shouts into his cell phone from Coral Gables, where he's getting ready to work the Miami-Duke college basketball game later that night.
Easily the Ranch's most well-known resident, Vitale and his wife, Lorraine, have lived in their 17,000- square-foot home in the Country Club's Portmarnock neighborhood for a decade now. He hosts an annual Christmas party for kids from the Boys & Girls Club at his home and lends his name to an NCAA tennis tournament held each year at the Country Club.
Another reason he loves
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the neighborhood so much: His two daughters and their families, including Vitale's five grandkids, also live in the Country Club, meaning he can see them just about whenever he wants - when he's not traveling the country for college basketball games, that is.
"We just fell in love with the area," Vitale says.
An interesting mix
Vitale's sentiments aren't that different from those of lots of other Country Club residents, who regularly throw around the word "love" when talking about life in their upscale neighborhood of 2,384 units and counting.
Irwin Davis, president of the Country Club West Homeowners' Association, was previously involved in planning a 3,000-acre development in New York, so "I knew what this Lakewood Ranch concept was," he says. He moved into his home in Thornhill six years ago.
"It was a no-brainer," Davis says.
Residents say they enjoy the fact that the neighborhood is a kind of great melting pot of people from different backgrounds and parts of the world.
"It's a pretty mixed demographic," says Jim Rogoze, a six-year resident of Silverwood. "You have some retirees. Others are very active in business world."
A neighbor of Rogoze's spends six months a year running a business in China. And just on his block, Davis has neighbors from Montreal, Michigan, Ottawa and London.
"It's an interesting mix of people," says Joe Novarro, who bought a vacation home in the Country Club with his wife, Joanne, in 2008 and moved here permanently two years later, relocating from Long Island.
Novarro estimates about half of the residents in his 53-home neighborhood of Wexford live there full-time, while the other half are snowbirds.
There have been recent issues surrounding security at Balmoral Gate, the neighborhood's entry point off Lakewood Ranch Boulevard, and a handful of break-ins, homeowners say, but there's a lot to like.
"I personally like the fact it's a maintenance-free neighborhood, so I don't have to take care of mowing the lawn," Novarro says.
From West to East
The sprawling Country Club includes everything from town homes to mansions, with homes that range in price from the $200,000s to more than $1 million.
Plans for the Country Club began around 1996 with the construction of Legacy Golf Club, an Arnold Palmer-designed public course just next door at the Manatee-Sarasota county line, north of University Parkway.
"We wanted to generate enough business to not lose our shirts on Legacy and build one community from there," explains Rex Jensen, CEO of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, which has developed much of the Country Club and operates its clubhouse, athletic center and three private golf courses.
The Country Club saw its first home sales in 1998. More subdivisions quickly followed, and so did the stunning 44,000-square-foot clubhouse, a 14,000-square-foot fitness center, 18 tennis courts and two private golf courses, Cypress Links and King's Dunes.
As more neighborhoods were built and sold out, the development eventually expanded to its newest portion, Country Club East, located east of Lorraine Road.
Country Club East is actively selling 439 units, said Jimmy Stewart, vice president of sales for LWR Communities, with more than 600 new homes coming soon and a few hundred more to follow.
SMR also plans to begin work on a second 10,000- to 12,000-square-foot clubhouse to the Royal Lakes Golf Course in Country Club East in the coming months, as well as a 7,000- to 9,000-square-foot expansion of the athletic center. Construction of a driving range at Royal Lakes is already under way.
Residents have access to 54 holes of golf through membership in the country club, which doesn't come cheap. There's a $28,000 one-time initiation fee for "platinum" level membership, with year-round access to the three golf courses; three other price levels are significantly cheaper and allow membership just at the athletic center or the clubhouse for social activities and dining.
The two-story clubhouse is considered by many to be the neighborhood's social hub.
"That's the important glue that holds Country Club East and West together," Jensen said.
The clubhouse is home to all sorts of social gatherings. Members can often be found congregating at the bar or around the outdoor stone fireplace. A beautiful wine cellar room is available for private dining and special occasions.
"You think you're in Napa Valley overlooking the vineyards," says membership director Maureen LaTessa.
The club's 1,000 or so members are extremely engaged and have taken an active role in the planning of activities and improvements to the facilities.
"A lot of other clubs, you sit back and the administration will dictate what you're going to do," says general manager Wayne Piazza. "We work with them ... We're so involved with members. Our expansion wasn't just put down on a board."
The clubhouse and the golf courses are popular stops for prospective buyers on tours from the Lakewood Ranch information centers, and the country club atmosphere is a big selling point, local real estate agents say.
"I think that it's a large factor, even if they don't join," says Craig Cerreta of Premier Sotheby's International Realty. "I think the majority of people that buy in Country Club like the fact that it's gated, like the fact that there's a country club with golf courses that make the place look pretty, and there's activities. I've sold to several people who don't golf but end up joining as a social member so they can go to dinners and dances and things like that."
Typical buyers in the Country Club include young professionals with families as well as snowbirds and empty-nesters buying a second home.
"A second homeowner when they're coming from out of town, they're looking for a country club that's very active," says Sharon Straw with Dwell Real Estate. "They fall in love with the fact that there's 54 holes of golf, an athletic center, the ambiance of the community and proximity to downtown."
But probably the biggest selling point for life at the Country Club, says Irwin Davis, is the Florida weather.
"That pool out there, the temperature's 85 degrees," says Davis, pointing to his screened-in backyard. Just that week, Syracuse University in Davis' hometown was named one of America's snowiest colleges.
"I rest my case."
Jason Bartolone, East Manatee editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter @JasonBartolone.