Amiable developer Henry Rodriguez listens to a dying village's needs and gets near-unanimous support for an Osprey Wal-Mart
By David Hackett - Herald Tribune
Published: Sunday, November 2, 2003 at 3:33 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, November 2, 2003 at 6:38 a.m.
OSPREY -- "You gotta know Henry." That's what people around this former fishing village say when you ask how it happened. "You just gotta know Henry," they say.
Henry is Henry Rodriguez, a land developer, who has convinced thousands of residents that he has found the way to put the community on the map, to bring hope back to fishermen who can't see Little Sarasota Bay for the gated mansions and condominiums, to give the 42,000 vehicles that pass by each day a reason to make their destination Osprey.
And that reason is Wal-Mart. Not just any Wal-Mart.
Rodriguez's plans are for a Wal-Mart Supercenter so massive that nearly five acres will be under one roof, fronted by a parking lot that can hold 1,000 vehicles.
With just one hurdle, a rezoning, Wal-Mart could be open by November 2004, and since, as Rodriguez says, "Wal-Mart Supercenters never go out of business," there it will be, 24-7, 365 days a year, giving eternal commerce to a village where most of the stores close before dark.
It rarely goes so smoothly for Wal-Mart.
From Pittsburgh to Austin, Texas, citizen groups in 100 communities have opposed Wal-Mart opening new stores, saying the company bankrupts local businesses and pays its workers poverty level wages. In Sarasota, residents successfully fought plans to expand a regular Wal-Mart into a super store. In Manatee, residents are opposing a Supercenter proposed for University Parkway.
In Osprey, however, Wal-Mart has found a welcome mat the likes of which government and civic officials say they never have seen for a retail business.
It is welcomed by business owners who see the store as a magnet that will attract traffic from U.S. 41.
It is welcomed by wealthy residents who say they are tired of seeing shuttered and run-down businesses dominate the entrance to their community.
And, perhaps, most of all, Wal-Mart is being embraced by longtime residents who feel they haven't gotten a share of the area's growing prosperity and for whom a grocery store within walking distance, 450 jobs close to home and a business that might raise their own property values are no small considerations.
"You have to understand what Osprey was," said Doug Clarke, owner of the landmark Hoosier Bar on U.S. 41 and a 33-year resident.
"It was an old fishing village. Then it all changed. A lot of people felt left out. They see Wal-Mart as being for them. And Henry made them believe he would do it right."
Nearly 1,200 citizens have written letters to the county supporting Wal-Mart; only four have opposed it.
The project also has received the unanimous endorsement of the Sarasota County Planning Commission, as well as a leading environmental group, Control Growth Now and the Sarasota County of Neighborhood Associations.
Want a higher authority? Even the Venice Diocese of the Catholic Church, which plans to share an access road for its new campus with Wal-Mart, is supporting the project.
"I've never seen anything like it," said Crystal Allred, a planning officer in Sarasota County for 20 years. "The most letters previously I can recall was 200, and most of those were opposing. Having this many people behind a project is unprecedented."
How did Wal-Mart get such support in Osprey?
"You gotta know Henry," said Allred, the county planner. "It wasn't Wal-Mart. It was Henry. He is maybe the most obsessively detail-oriented person I have ever seen."
Listening to residents
Rodriguez, 40, has piercing blue eyes and the manner of a puppy dog who wants to be loved by all. His father was a janitor, his mother a seamstress. He spent his childhood in New York, moving to West Palm when he was 11, he said.
"I definitely don't come from money," he said, "but I never lacked for ambition. I attended Broward Community College for two years, but I made almost straight A's."
Rodriguez remodeled his first home when he was 21. At 26, he borrowed $500 to invest in a distributorship for Sensormatic, which makes anti-shoplifting devices attached to clothes and other products. He was a leading distributor, he said, before selling his stake back to the company in 1993.
He was in the telecommunications business next, starting a company that bought and resold long-distance phone time. He said he sold that company in 1998 and, the same year, bought the five-acre Lippincott estate on Casey Key. He subdivided the property, selling off three lots and building a home that sold for $6.5 million.
His attention then turned to Osprey. Osprey's biggest shopping center, Southbay Fashion Center, was mostly shuttered. Empty fields and boarded-up businesses dotted both sides of Tamiami Trail. An eight-acre site that caught Rodriguez's eye had been for sale for 20 years, its 'For Sale' sign covered with mildew.
"In certain parts, saying you're a developer is a four-letter word," he said. "But development doesn't have to be a bad thing."
Instead of clutching his plans close to his vest, Rodriguez showed candor that residents say they never before had seen from a land developer.
He held 68 public meetings and estimated he's met with 5,000 residents from Osprey and neighboring villages Laurel and Nokomis. In between, he took ailing residents to the hospital, drove senior citizens to the grocery, picked up trash during community cleanup days. He donated $50,000 to Osprey churches and about $5,000 to the Osprey Civic Association, which used the money for Thanksgiving dinners for needy residents.
On Sept. 18, the night the county Planning Commission voted on a rezoning for Wal-Mart, Rodriguez chartered four buses to take hundreds of supporters to the meeting. They were given sandwiches and sodas, paid for by the Civic Association.
For Jay Leland, owner of an Osprey plumbing business and one of the Wal-Mart project's few detractors, Rodriguez's passion seems calculating.
"It's been evangelical zeal the way Henry has sold this thing," Leland said. "I don't know how many thousands of hands he's shaken, but I can tell you after every one he's asked the person to write a letter supporting him. It's like he's been a missionary for Wal-Mart."
But John Ask, president of the Nokomis Area Civic Association, representing nearly 4,000 homes south of Osprey, said such gestures should not be misinterpreted.
"Henry is a hard worker and he has a very good heart," said Ask. "He didn't buy the support. It came honestly."
Wal-Mart doesn't have gates
From multimillion-dollar beach houses on Casey Key to the gated luxury of The Oaks, the area seems more in step with the boutiques of St. Armands Circle than the blue-light specials of chain stores. The unincorporated village of Osprey has about 4,200 residents and a per capita income of $49,862, more than twice the national average, according to the 2000 Census. Its unemployment rate is 2 percent.
But drive east of U.S. 41 onto Church Street and Patterson Avenue and you get a different perspective. You find blocks of homes, some as small as 500 square feet, many on 50-foot-wide lots. Oversized pickups, not Jaguars and Porsches, are in the driveways. It's a place where as recently as two years ago you still could buy a home for $40,000.
It's also a place where you find a resentment about what Osprey has become.
A theme shared by several residents who wrote letters to the Planning Commission in support of Wal-Mart is that Osprey has been a neglected stepchild of Sarasota County.
"The disenfranchised areas of Osprey are getting a break for once," wrote resident Larry Kintz.
Geneva Reardon, a 50-year resident, ticks off grievances.
Osprey doesn't have a library. Its only elementary school closed in 1976.
For decades, fishermen cast their nets in Little Sarasota Bay, not getting rich, but getting by. Then net fishing was outlawed.
"All they've done is take things away," Reardon said. "As I see it, Wal-Mart is for the people. It will have a grocery store where people can walk to."
Many residents remember the years of rancorous debate that preceded development of the Potter Palmer estate into The Oaks, an exclusive community of some 500 homes on Little Sarasota Bay.
In 1981, county officials asked voters if they wanted to spend millions for 450 acres on the bay.
They said no.
Today, a sliver of land, not even big enough for a boat launch, is the village's only public access to the sparkling bay, said resident Judy Johnson.
"We had to fight just to get this," Johnson said. "Thirty years ago, fishermen could just launch their boats."
Johnson is head of the county-appointed Osprey Revitalization Committee. Her husband, Alva, is the great-grandson of John Greene Webb, who founded Osprey in 1867.
But when she drove her 1993 Chevrolet Lumina to The Oaks recently, she was turned back by a guard at the gate.
"The Oaks hasn't done anything for our community except cause flooding," she said. "Say this for Wal-Mart: It doesn't have gates."
A different look Resentment only goes so far.
"If that's all this was about, we would not have the support we've received," Rodriguez said.
If he didn't care about Osprey, Rodriguez said, he could have developed the property two years ago.
He said that 12 of the 20 acres planned for Wal-Mart were zoned commercial, meaning he could have attracted a big-box store such as Lowe's or Home Depot, or even a regular Wal-Mart, without getting a zoning change. He said he pursued the change to build a Supercenter because residents said they wanted a grocery.
"That was absolutely the case," said Allred, the county planning officer who worked on the project.
Johnson, of the Osprey Civic Association, said that Rodriguez "went to bat" on every request residents made about Wal-Mart.
She said the retailer agreed to more than 14 changes, including a 50-foot-wide, 5-foot-tall landscaped berm between the parking lot and the road. Instead of its typical blue big-box design, the Wal-Mart will have Mediterranean-style architecture. The company will spend $65,000 to preserve two grand oaks near the garden center.
"Another thing we fought for is not to have a gas station," Johnson said, "because we didn't want to hurt the gas stations we already have. Henry got them to go along with it."
Wal-Mart even has the support of the environmental group Control Growth Now.
"Traditionally, we've opposed these projects," said group president Dan Lobeck. "Saving those two oak trees and other changes they made were very positive. This definitely qualifies as a man-bites-dog story."
Planning Commissioner Joseph Barbetta said in 13 years on the board, he never has seen such public support for a retail store. He gives much of the credit to Rodriguez and Osprey civic leaders, calling it a "textbook example" that universities should teach about how land developers should listen to a community.
"Some members of the board may have personal feelings about Wal-Mart, concerns about the Wal-Martization of America," Barbetta said. "But we had to stick to the land-use issues. And there's no getting around that Rodriguez has done a tremendous job."
After talking to thousands of people over the past two years, Rodriguez has only one more group to convince. The Sarasota County Commission will meet Dec. 17 to vote on rezoning the property.
A huge difference
Various studies suggest the Wal-Mart will attract from 7,000 to 15,000 vehicles a day from U.S. 41.
"Wal-Mart is going to make a huge difference for anyone who owns a business here or who wants to start one," said Nancy Buchner, an antique dealer on U.S. 41 and head of Osprey Citizens for Responsible Growth. "We have the traffic, but no benefit from it. Wal-Mart will be a destination point."
Another source of support is from residents who believe Wal-Mart will raise property values around the area.
"When you look at what Wal-Mart is doing to property values, I don't see how you can be against it," said Barry Seidel, a Sarasota real estate broker who specializes in land along the Tamiami Trail. "I've told people for years that the growth had to come south from Sarasota. It was squeezing out like a tube of toothpaste. This is making me look like a genius."
Property along U.S. 41 in Osprey that sold for less than $5 a square foot several years ago has tripled in price, Seidel said, attributing the increase to Wal-Mart.
"Everybody wants to be around Wal-Mart," he said.
That includes longtime residents who are remodeling their homes and cleaning up their yards at a rate Johnson never has seen before.
"Some of these homes have increased in value 50 percent or more," she said. "They see this as an area that is really taking off."
One of the prime beneficiaries of rising property values is Rodriguez himself. In addition to the 20 acres he owns for the Wal-Mart site, Rodriguez has accumulated nearly 40 more acres nearby.
Last week, he unveiled plans for Grand Oak Village, a development of small shops, offices, apartments and homes running just north of the Wal-Mart from U.S. 41 to Old Venice Road. The village will include street-side parking and apartments above businesses, with a public library in the center. He said he hopes for the businesses to be divided "50-50" between national chains and independents.
It is a project that would not be sustainable, Rodriguez said, without having Wal-Mart as a destination point.
Leland, the only member of the Osprey Revitalization Committee to vote against Wal-Mart, said he fears that "this will be our future. We were trying to get this little town up and humming and what do we do? We climb into bed with Wal-Mart. We'll be just another town with a Wal-Mart and a bunch of other chain stores, and our money will go to Bentonville, Ark."
Leland has been a voice in the wilderness.
Jack Perkins, a Casey Key resident and host of the A&E TV show "Biography," disputed that Wal-Mart would suck the character out of the community.
"I don't want to sound like a commercial for Wal-Mart, but I shop there myself," he said. "The (Tamiami) Trail in Osprey was shriveling up and dying. How could anyone say that this wouldn't be an improvement?"
More than putting their faith in Wal-Mart, residents seem to be banking on Rodriguez. They say they trust him to see that the job is done right. "Henry could have made his money a year or two ago by putting in a Home Depot without a zoning change and gotten out of here," Perkins said.
"But he listened to the people and gave them what they wanted. There is an underlying humility about Henry that doesn't allow him to do anything arrogant. He remains a mensch."