How family illness inspired this developer to create C. Fla.’s first ‘agrihood’

“Game changing” are words often heard with Dwight Saathoff projects that have popped up all over Central Florida lately.

Take Griffin Farm Town Center, for instance, which is breaking ground this month.

The $200 million project being developed by Saathoff and Chuck Whittall’s Unicorp National Developments Inc. will include 120,000 square feet of retail, 265 apartments, single-family homes, townhomes and even bungalows to an underdeveloped midtown section of Lake Mary.

The project is poised to create a positive ripple effect throughout the community, particularly by adding new residential options to support the people moving in for the droves of new jobs in Lake Mary.

Then there’s Ruby Lake, another project by Saathoff and Whittall, which will bring homes to previously foreclosed land near Walt Disney World.

Pulte Homes is building single-family homes on 236 lots, and Saathoff expects to sell more property in January for Ruby Lake’s second phase, where Pulte Homes plans to build high-end townhomes.

Then there’s The Grow, or “agrihood,” Saathoff’s east Orlando project poised to be a first for Central Florida. Nearly 3,000 homes, a revenue-generating farm, community gardens, restaurants with ingredients from the gardens, bike trails, retail and more are proposed for 1,237 acres behind the University of Central Florida — a plan that’s been divisive among community leaders and residents.

Orange County commissioners on Sept. 20 are scheduled to vote on The Grow’s rezoning and regulatory plan and, if approved, the project can enter its design and permitting phase. The Grow’s first phase may begin construction next summer.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Saathoff has even more in the works. Here, he shares insights into The Grow, other projects and his overall assessment of the Central Florida market:

What was your inspiration for The Grow? Being from a small Midwestern farming town, I’ve always had an affinity for farmers and I enjoy cooking with fresh ingredients. A few years ago, we had a serious family illness that made me much more concerned with knowing how and where food in our supermarket was grown. I began to really understand the health benefits of locally grown food and the environmental need for sustainable food production practices. I thought it would really be cool to create a community where agriculture is the focal point. I’ve since been blown away by the passion people have shown for the “agrihood” idea.

What will the first phase of The Grow include? The initial phase of a 9-acre working farm and community barn, some community gardens, a 20-acre community park and some residential development. A primary goal for the first phase will be to establish the agricultural theme. We want it to permeate through everything we do, starting on Day One. I know that the county also is anxious to start construction on the 20-acre community park as soon as possible.

What’s it been like having to fight for approval of The Grow? It’s a natural human reaction to be wary of change near the place you live. However, when you work so long and so closely with people on projects, you can make friends even with those who don’t necessarily like everything you’re doing. We’ve made some truly good friends in the community through this project. In that regard, it’s been a rewarding experience. It’s impractical to expect that everyone loves what you do, but some of the project’s biggest opponents have been delightful on a personal level. Responding to all the comments has slowed down the project tremendously, though.

What attracts you to a project? I like places I’d personally like to live and shop in, and places where development could make the surrounding area better. Even though such locations generally are more expensive, they also afford the greatest opportunities for creativity and innovation. Plus, these kind of locations tend to withstand economic downturns better. I look for locations where we think there’s a compelling story to tell about why we’re doing what we’re doing. I don’t like doing something just to be active.

What are you like at the negotiating table? I think I’m pretty straight-forward. I try to do my homework so I understand the true value of an asset. Then, whether as the buyer or seller, I try making the case for my position. If the other party points out a factor they think I might have missed, I’m willing to reconsider my position. People in the land development business in Florida are pretty sophisticated, so I think the best approach to negotiations is to fully understand the asset and then simply try to structure a deal that’s rational given the asset.

What’s your overall assessment of Central Florida’s real estate market? I have lived here 36 years and am generally accustomed to the fact that we seem to be growing all of the time. However, I don’t think I’ve ever seen growth like what we’re experiencing now. The statistics for jobs and population growth back this up. They are both increasing faster than normal so, naturally, real estate markets are benefiting. Maybe we’ll all be surprised by a fall or downturn when we’re least expecting it, but I’m very bullish on Central Florida’s future. I can’t think of a better place to invest.

What else can Central Florida expect from you in the future? Next year, I’ll focus on a new residential community with a strong senior-living emphasis in Oakland. It’ll include homes ranging from multifamily units, to bungalows and townhomes available for all ages, but assisted living and senior components will make it so people can move into different homes as they age and their needs change without leaving their neighborhood or friends. The property has direct access to State Road 50 and Florida’s Turnpike. There’s a real need out there for this kind of community. I also want to focus on my custom home-building division. We’ve been building $1 million to $2 million Winter Park speculative homes, but there’s demand for more and it’s a lot of fun. Most buyers are looking for a new house, and if you can provide it in a great location, you have a winning formula.

August 23, 2016
Orlando Business Journal