Daily decisions must consider long-term impacts, J.D. Porter says
By B.C. Manion
As J.D. Porter drove his hulking white truck along the edges of Wiregrass Ranch, he spoke with the perspective of someone whose family has deep roots in Wesley Chapel and has the power to influence the community’s future.
The Porter family settled in Wesley Chapel long before growth arrived.
They bought land from the Rockefeller Land Trust for Wiregrass Ranch in 1941, using proceeds from the sale of the land now occupied by Zephyrhills Municipal Airport.
The Porters were forced to sell that Zephyrhills land at the beginning of World War II, to make way for an Army Air Force training station.
During a recent tour of the family’s property, the 32-year-old Porter reminisced about his family’s history on Wiregrass Ranch, talked about the area’s current development and shared the family’s vision for the future.
He recalled how his grandparents, James and Martha Porter, initially lived in an old moonshiner’s house they had carted from the woods to a site on SR 54. “For the first two years, they didn’t have electricity.”
Back in those days, about a half-dozen cars went down SR 54 every day, and his grandmother could tell who was coming by the sound the car, Porter said.
Porter recalled happy boyhood memories of fishing with his mom, taking his dogs out for runs and camping under the stars at night.
“We’d get up in the morning and there would be deer all throughout, underneath these oak trees,” he said. “Florida – for all of its development and all of the growth – was the wild, wild west longer than the wild, wild west was.”
A fair number of critters still make their home on the family’s ranch. A lone coyote was seen loping through an orange grove on a recent afternoon. And sightings of hogs, deer, turkey and other wild animals are common, Porter said.
The family’s deep connection with the land and community affects its decision-making, he said.
“To get the end result that I think everybody – not only Wesley Chapel or Pasco County, but I think the entire region – wants, there are certain things that you have to do, and there are certain choices you have to make,” Porter said.
Instead of trying to max out the sales price on every land transaction, the family takes the long view.
Over the years, the family has sold off sizable chunks of land, including the sites now occupied by Saddlebrook Resort, Meadow Pointe subdivision and The Shops at Wiregrass.
The Porters also owned the land where the 80-bed Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel, is now under construction on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, north of SR 56.
“The house where I grew up was right where the hospital is now,” Porter said.
The family donated 60 acres for the Porter Campus at Wiregrass, a new satellite for Pasco-Hernando Community College, under construction on SR 56 and Mansfield Drive.
And just across the street from there, the Porters are under contract on a land deal with Raymond James, an international financial services company. If that deal goes through, it could ultimately bring thousands of jobs to Pasco County.
The Porters also owned the land now occupied by Wiregrass Ranch High and John Long Middle and has contracts with Pasco County Schools for four elementary school sites, if the district needs them.
When making its decisions, the family considers the big picture and long-term consequences, Porter said.
For instance, instead of donating a low-profile property for the community college, the family chose a spot in a prime location. They did that to provide easy access to the college and its staff for Wiregrass Ranch High and for office workers at future area companies, Porter said.
“You want to make sure that all of the parts work together. Unless somebody is there, is shepherding to make sure that all of this does, in fact, work together and interrelates – it’s not going to,” he said.
Although the Raymond James deal isn’t closed, Porter is confident that it will. He also expects other companies to be drawn to the area’s road network, its reliable utility grid, its ample housing supply and its proximity to Interstate 75.
One day, he envisions thousands of acres of the family’s cattle and citrus operations to be transformed into a new town center for Wesley Chapel, on land stretching between SR 56 and SR 54. He can easily picture that land occupied by scores of office buildings, boutiques, restaurants and government services.
The entire area will have internal roads so people can get around, from Raymond James to the mall and other places without having to go out on SR 56 or Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, Porter said.
While that vision may take years – or even decades – to be realized, the hospital is already building a road on its property that will connect to the mall, making it easy for people to get back and forth, Porter said. That’s precisely the kind of connectivity his family is promoting, he said.
Construction also is under way on about 60 acres of ponds and lakes on land just east of the hospital. Those lakes will be used to provide fishing, boating and scenic views for people using the hospital and mall, and there will be trails leading to the area from the Raymond James site, Porter said.
That recreational area is next to the proposed sports complex, the Fields at Wiregrass, which will feature multi-use football, soccer, lacrosse and field hockey fields.
The Porters are engaged in talks with the county regarding about $12 million that could be spent on the sports complex, which would seek to draw teams and visitors for tournaments. Over time, as revenues come in, Porter envisions expanding the development to include Major League Baseball regulation-sized fields.
The area’s overall development activity has attracted international attention, Porter said, noting he’s met with visitors from Palestine, Israel, Bosnia and Kosovo to talk with them about what Wiregrass Ranch is trying to create.
Porter said his family has deals in the works with companies that are interested in moving into the area, but he’s not at liberty to discuss them.
“I’ve got four nondisclosures signed. If we landed one of them, it would be a homerun,” Porter said.