Florida town rides housing boom, bust
The Old Dundee Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Depot in Dundee, Fla. Famed for their citrus groves, Dundee residents take stock of the economy and the upcoming elections.
Dundee is a town of 3,500 people, in the middle of Polk County. That’s the largest citrus-producing county in the state. But not too long ago, Dundee was preparing for a population 10 times that size.
At the height of the housing boom, developers thought this little town could become a bedroom community for nearby cities like Lakeland and Winterhaven, and maybe even for Orlando, which is just about an hour northeast of here. Mark Wheeler grows Valencia oranges – those are juice oranges – on green groves in and around Dundee. Back then, speculators were paying so much money for land, Wheeler couldn’t say “no.” He sold two groves.
“Put a lot of time and sweat equity and money into them,” Wheeler recalled. “But it got to the point where the prices were just crazy, and while we had a sentimental attachment, you have to make a business decision as well.”
Polk County officials say that, since 1989, the county has lost just under 150,000 acres once zoned for agriculture. One of the first developers to get to Dundee was Ron Ben-Zeev. He’s based in Orlando.
“I received a call from a builder, and the builder asked me if I would be willing to develop lots for them in the Town of Dundee,” Ben-Zeev said. “I did not know where Dundee was, or how to find it.”
Ben-Zeev did eventually find Dundee, and he put together a 33-acre parcel here. He planned to build about 150 homes, and he put up 50 before the housing bubble burst. Doug Leonard remembers that pop. He used to be Dundee’s town planner. During the boom, his office issued 10 to 15 building permits a month.
And then: “All of a sudden, it just dropped off,” he said. “It just quit.
Ron Ben-Zeev has spent these last few years trying to get out of the development business, trying to get rid of the land here.
“We are in negotiations with a bank to try to come up with a solution that makes sense, although right now, it seems to be hard to do,” he explained. “And we’re trying to find some way to stave-off the losses as best we can.”
Ben-Zeev has put up a sign on the side of the road: “FOR SALE: 99 lot subdivision, in whole or part.” That’s how I tracked him down. Ben-Zeev thinks the government could have done more to help homeowners and to help people like him weather the housing crash. He says he voted for Barack Obama in 2008, but this year, he’s taking a close look at Mitt Romney. “I think a lot was left to be desired,” he added.
For his part, citrus grower Mark Wheeler does not think the government could have done anything to prevent the crash that altered much of the landscape here, in Dundee. Wheeler takes me through downtown, past the citrus-packing plant and more orange groves. And then, a couple of miles up the road, he pulls over.
“This would be a perfect example of the land boom – and just how quickly things collapsed,” Wheeler said.
It looks like a field, filled with waste-high weeds. It’s surrounded by a fence. But among those weeds, you can see pavement. There are street lamps. And there’s a big sign that reads, “The Village in Dundee: A Retirement Community.”
Wheeler turns onto a bumpy, red-dirt road, onto a grove his family bought in the late 1980s. “Figure we could walk through this one a little bit,” he told me as we before we headed to a spot between two long rows of trees.
Wheeler says his net worth was cut in half between 2006 and 2011 as land prices dropped. And like everyone I talked to around here, Wheeler tells me he’s worried about the economy and the budget deficit. And he’s particularly concerned about the gridlock that prevents congress from taking action on those issues.
“I feel like, to move forward as a country, we’re going to have to get past that,” he said. “And I think that people on both extremes are going to have to realize that concessions are going to have to be made. That’s just the reality of the situation we’re in.”
Wheeler, who voted for Obama in 2008, says taxes probably have to go up: “We’ve spent way more money than we should have over the last decade, and neither party can escape that blame.”
He also says that he’s leaning toward backing Obama again, but he’s not “fully decided.” Today, citrus growers like Wheeler are buying back some of the groves they sold to speculators. The grove we were standing on is an example of that: “This was actually an abandoned grove that we closed on last November,” he said. “There was a tremendous amount of deadwood.”
The developer who bought it didn’t do anything with the land. He didn’t take care of the trees. But Wheeler figured he could save them. He paid workers to prune them back. During the boom, the job would have cost a small fortune – he would have had to match what the home builders were paying. But just as land prices have fallen here, so has the cost of labor. And saving the trees is cheaper than replacing them.
You can follow David Guru’s roadtrip through Florida all week on our radio program, and on an interactive map.