In North Port, a new identity


By Earle Kimel

Developer hopes rebranding of West Villages to Wellen Park will give community an edge on local, regional and national competition

NORTH PORT — Six years after it teamed with Vanguard Land Co. to purchase the 9,650 remaining acres of the Thomas Ranch, Mattamy Homes is creating a new identity for an area that had been heavily identified with the West Villages Improvement District.

Starting June 8, all the communities will be covered by the halo brand “Wellen Park.”

Rick Severance, who took over as president of West Villages last July, said the rebranding of what is consistently hovering between the third and fifth fastest-selling master-planned community in the United States was already in the works when he came on board from Babcock Ranch.

“West Villages was never meant to represent all of the land holdings,” said Severance, who is now technically the president of Wellen Park.

Among other things, the name West Villages couldn’t be owned or trademarked but is still a valuable part of the regional identity, Severance noted.

The existing neighborhoods of Grand Paradiso, Island Walk, Renaissance, Oasis and The Preserve are all still part of the West Villages neighborhood.

West Villages Parkway is still the main north-south road, the Publix-anchored shopping center is still West Villages Marketplace, and the website will remain active — though links will also point to the main website,

“We did six months worth of due diligence on what would make sense for the name,” Severance said. “We looked at national competitors, statewide
competitors, regional and local.”

Officials were also aware of identity problems created by the fact that West Villages sounded too much like The Villages, a sprawling retirement community that occupies portions of Lake, Sumter and Marion counties.

“It was interesting how much confusion each individual neighborhood was having from the sales perspective with The Villages, especially from an out-ofstate buyer or somebody that was not familiar with the general region,” Severance said. “Creating a delineation, a differentiation was really important because we, of course, aren’t age restricted.

“Our intention is to have multiple neighborhoods, multi-generational residents,” he added. “We wanted and needed to make that distinction, and by preparing the name Wellen Park as the brand for the overall master plan, it allowed us to do that.”

In addition to the West Villages district, which also includes Sarasota National and Grand Palm — developments in unincorporated Sarasota County that are marketed along with West Villages — Wellen Park will include Downtown Wellen, Playmore District neighborhoods and several other yet-to-be-named neighborhoods, including the one where CoolToday Park is located.

Boca Royale, a development off of State Road 776 that is also marketed along with Wellen Park properties, will be part of the Playmore District.

Playmore is the next big area for expansion, with 2,300 residential units under contract in that district, with construction expected over the next 12 to 18 months.

“That’s why that district needed some definition,” Severance said.

Downtown Wellen is technically home to West Villages Marketplace, a future assisted living facility and rental apartments — all of which will front U.S. 41 — as well as a showplace town center that will be built around an 80-acre lake that will be encircled by a three-mile fitness trail.

Confusion vs. consternation

While the new name may clear up confusion with The Villages, it also has caused consternation among some residents and business owners who felt they should have had a voice in the process, or that their hard-earned investment in businesses identified with the West Villages will be diminished.

Lisa Thompson, who operates two businesses — West Villages Homewatch and West Villages Handyman — started their businesses shortly after moving to Gran Paradiso and took great pains to make sure they could use
West Villages in the name of their first business, West Villages Homewatch, and went on to build their brand.

“Building a small business is not an easy feat, and the only way to build a business and a brand is to take full pride and ownership in what you do,” Thompson wrote in a Facebook instant message. “That is what we have done. We go above and beyond for all of our clients and our business.

“Now we are being told the business we have invested in has a name that will no longer exist. That the name West Villages is essentially being removed,” she continued. “There was never any discussion or meeting about it. We’ve never read a word about West Villages being part of some bigger plan. West Villages was the master plan. But now it isn’t.”

Gran Paradiso resident John Meisel said that while the developer had every right to create the Wellen Park halo brand and no obligation to loop residents in on the process, they should have.

“Choosing a name without any input or interaction from the residents was just wrong,” said Meisel, who also serves as chairman of West Villagers for Responsible Government.

“You want to maintain a harmonious relationship with the residents of West Villages, and hope for them to support any and all future development activities that occur that are going to have some impact on them one way or another, whether it be traffic, construction or what have you,” he later added.

Meisel later suggested that even if the developer had settled on Wellen Park, it would have been better to create a faux contest and solicited name suggestions.

“Make it a contest, make it fun,” Meisel said. “Say ‘we’re looking at rebranding this area, we welcome input from everyone, please supply your suggestions.’

“In their hip pocket, they could have known all along that Wellen Park was going to be it, but it would have made people feel — right, wrong or indifferent — that they were part of that decision.”

“The communication was done poorly, they solicited zero input from residents — not that residents were entitled to that — but you want people to feel like they’re a part of it.

“That’s what makes it a community — that’s what’s totally absent.”

Not all resident feedback has been harsh.

Janice Ward, who moved to Renaissance two years ago from Connecticut with her husband, Will, said, “I just think it makes sense.”

“West Villages was just a small portion of what’s going to be a bigger picture, and we can see it, we see it happening,” she continued, pointing to CoolToday Park and the marketplace construction. “For me, it
flows, and it sort of brings everything, ties everything together.”

North Port Vice Mayor Jill Luke, whose District 5 seat includes the incorporated portion of Wellen Park, noted that Severance reached out to the City Commission about a month ago — after the decision was made — to inform them of the change.

Like Ward, she, too, saw merit in the name change.

“To me, it gives it more of an urban feel,” Luke said. “An improvement district is pretty much a city within a city.”

“It does not impact anything, it doesn’t change anything except it does take away the stigma of being associated with The Villages.”

The Wellen Park frequently asked questions page was developed for one-on-one meetings with city officials and other entities, with the intent to share the site with residents during what had been originally planned as in-person happy hours in the different neighborhoods.

But it was released early.

Since news of the Wellen Park name change became public ahead of the planned resident rollout, Severance has had several one-onone talks with concerned residents.

Because of social distancing protocols, the happy hour went virtual and is set for 6 p.m. Thursday.

Severance will address some of the questions from those discussions as well as other questions being solicited ahead of time via email to [email protected].

Not the first name change

The adoption of the Wellen Park halo brand is just the latest name change for a tract of land that was once known as Berry Ranch, then later Taylor Ranch and then, after the Taylor family sold to Georgia-based developer Stan Thomas, Thomas Ranch.

Thomas became the largest private landowner in Sarasota County when he purchased the 26-squaremile ranch for $78.4 million over a 13-month time frame that ended in 2002.

First the Taylors and then Thomas pushed for annexation of the property by the city of North Port for development purposes. The West Villages Improvement District — a special district modeled after the Reedy Creek Improvement District that is home to Disney World — was approved by the state Legislature as a special taxing authority charged with, among other things, construction of roads and stormwater retention areas.

Sarasota County, which initially fought North Port’s annexation of the ranch property, eventually worked out a joint planning agreement with the city that allowed for the development to commence.

After the recession, Mattamy, Canada’s largest homebuilder, and Sarasota based Vanguard paid $86.25 million for the land, and late last year, Mattamy struck a deal to buy out Vanguard, which gave it ownership of 98.5% of the partnership that is developing the 9,600-acre masterplanned community.

The entire West Villages area, encompassing 15,000 acres, has been ranked as one of the nation’s fastest selling master planned communities — despite the occasional confusion with The Villages in north central Florida.

To come up with Wellen Park, the developer started with 50 names, then cut it down to 15, 10 and 5.

Severance said that a stakeholders group of builders, marketing and sales teams of the neighborhoods was consulted for feedback on the name choices.

“Overwhelmingly Wellen Park was selected,” Severance said. “Not just by the developer and the owner of the property but by the focus groups — at least four to one.”

One reason additional feedback sessions weren’t conducted with residents, Severance said, is because nothing about their existing neighborhoods are changing.

“We weren’t asking West Villages’ name to change, we weren’t asking for their zip code to change, we weren’t asking for their neighborhoods to change — we’re still keeping intact, and we were still honoring West Villages as a district within Wellen Park.

“I think we need to be clear about the fact that we weren’t asking and aren’t asking for any change from the residents or how they represent themselves currently,” he added.

Severance stressed that the developer is looking to create an identity that will be fleshed out over at least two decades and encompass roughly 7,000 acres that are yet to be developed.

“It was important that Wellen Park represent the overall landholdings and what those could be,” Severance said. “We are trying to look out over the headlights as to how this will be referenced 10, 15, 20 years from now.

“We’re actually really excited,” he added. “I think change is difficult for people, but in candor, we’re candidly not asking any of our current residents to change the way they reference themselves, we’re not asking the West Villages as it’s being communicated to change.

“So we feel like we’re trying to be more strategic about the long-term vision while still keeping the current environment intact.”

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