LAKEWOOD RANCH -- It's morning in Central Park.
No, not Central Park in New York City. Far from it. But Central Park in Lakewood Ranch has its own unique character and personality, one of tranquility, family and a sense of community.
If you spend some time here, you're bound to see children peeking outside their patios to greet a husband and wife duo of sandhill cranes, fondly named Ricky and Lucy, squawking for some bread from their very-giving neighbors. Cows grazing in nearby farms can be heard mooing loudly at night, probably when they're mating. All of a sudden, owls can appear to grace the adorning oak trees that line the backyard preserves of the manicured neighborhoods that comprise the six communities of Central Park.
Lest we not forget, the dog parks, one for the big pooches and the other for the small dogs, one of the most popular areas to gather, walk, socialize and learn all about the neighbors who are quickly moving in and making Central Park their home.
"It's gratifying to see our
community come to life, to be the community we envisioned," said Leisa Weintraub, vice president of marketing and creative director for Neal Communities, the primary residential developer of Central Park, which bought most of the property from Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch.
Unfolding just to the north of the original Lakewood Ranch communities along State Road 70, where the farms still exist, Central Park has attracted a wide variety of home buyers because of its affordability, a centralized park full of amenities like tennis courts, dog parks, splash park and a playground, and the nearby Gullett Elementary School and Lakewood Ranch High School.
The community even has the distinction of being the official home of the annual Irish Celtic Festival every March that draws thousands of people from Manatee and Sarasota counties.
"The significance of Central Park is that it's at the center of the universe, the universe of Manatee and Sarasota counties," said Pat Neal, owner and president of Neal Communities.
Since Central Park opened in July 2010, 658 homes have sold -- almost the entire community -- by the largest home builder, Neal Communities, combined with Cardel, Lee Wetherington and Bruce Williams Homes.
"The location of Lakewood Ranch is the most important buying element. New homes can still be purchased there in the low $200,000 range, but not for very much longer," Neal added.
The residents are a mix of young professionals, families, empty nesters, working couples and retirees, and about half of them have relocated from the north. Even a former medical student in the military from nearby LECOM (Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine) bought a home in Central Park so she could be close to the school, and near her mother, who also bought a home there.
On a bright, sunny afternoon in Claremont Park, still undergoing construction to complete the final phase of home building, Sue Balloch, who is a home-based recruiter, sits outside her expansive screened lanai overlooking a pool, a nearby pond, a tree preserve and a bulldozer in the background busily laying pipes for new homes.
Bulloch moved here last June from Southern California with her husband Gavin, a South African native, her 10-year-old daughter, Stacey, a fifth-grader at Gullett Elementary, and Cassidy, 12-years-old and a student at Nolan Middle School.
Unlike the southern portion of Lakewood Ranch, divided into districts managed by an autonomous authority and neighborhood homeowner associations, Central Park is a stewardship run by an independent management company, but Balloch and other residents from the different subdivisions of Central Park have formed a committee to vote on some substantive issues concerning landscaping and lawn maintenance. She's happy to be active and says her decision to move here was spot on.
"One of the things that hit us is the sense of community. Our girls can ride their bikes over to see friends. When you come from a different state, this is really important. We got to know our neighbors even before we moved in, when we first visited, and they took pictures of our home under construction and kept emailing them to us," said Balloch, whose chose a two-story home so her family from Michigan could visit and escape the cold.
"There's a lot of birds with the new construction. I like to ride my bike to school and take in the scenery. It's really cool to see all the birds," Balloch's daughter, Stacey, said, after returning home from school.
Balloch's neighbor down the street, Kelly Taylor, who grew up in Sarasota and lived there most of her life, moved to Central Park within a month of the Ballochs and couldn't be happier. Taylor, a Lakewood Ranch realtor who lives with her husband and two college-age sons during their school breaks, really likes her surroundings and the friendliness of the neighbors.
"We wanted to move here for a long time, and it's been a godsend. We all connected pretty quickly. I'm glad we bought a big front porch so we can sit outside and say hello," said Taylor, who regularly takes advantage of the tennis and dog park amenities.
"I had no plans to move here, but I fell in love with it when I visited Lakewood Ranch two years ago with my wife," said RC Bartley, a Forest Park resident who retired from law enforcement in Maryland, where he was a fingerprint and forensics expert. His wife, a corporate executive, was also convinced to leave the pressure and the long hours of work behind.
"I'm amazed at how quickly we adjusted here," said Bartley, who was taking a brief trip back to Maryland, the first since he moved to Central Park, and couldn't stop raving about the beautiful sunsets.
"People are so helpful and friendly. It's a good mix. Everyone gets along and respects each other."
Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter, can be reached at 941-745-1010. Follow her on Twitter @MoschellaHerald.