North Port is growing up but, unless you have a reason to be down here, you may not be aware of this transformation. Throughout our expansive city, baseball parks and water slides loom on the horizon. New hotels and the possibility of a hospital begin to shape up our infrastructure. For those of us who have lived here through the real estate boom, then the construction of what seemed like endless Dollar General stores and Mattress Firms, we are ready.
If Sarasota County is a family whose relatives come together for a Thanksgiving meal–North Port would be that awkward cousin at the holiday table—kind of gangly, taking up way too much space, a little rude with the elbow stretches, while Sarasota (our well-kept relatives to the north) would know exactly which fork to use, how to sip tea with a pinky point, and speak in acceptable tones. It’s just the way it is and for good reason; John Ringling didn’t ascend upon North Port and see jewel-toned waters and all of the other magic that Sarasota has. No, we do not have Gulf access or a thriving Downtown area, and although there are a couple of great high school bands in the area, we hardly are a fine arts mecca. But, with exciting growth and new plans on the horizon, many of us find the changes compelling and, also, a long time coming.
Every town needs a central gathering area, just look at any city in America that is established. Though a town center was originally utilitarian for new settlers to exchange information, hold meetings and events and just come together as a group, it is also a focal point for a city. Drive into Lakewood Ranch and, whether you mean to or not, you will end up at the Town Square. Sarasota has a great old Downtown area with upscale restaurants and live music, and Bradenton has substantially cashed in on its beautiful River-clad downtown area with skateparks, outdoor concerts and abundant sidewalks. But, in North Port some might argue Coco Plum Village Shops is the mecca of the city, just drive through there and you’ll see where all of the people go. There is new growth on Sumter and Toledo Blade near the Interstate but that hardly feels “Downtownish.” So, for now, until the cool restaurants and pubs with crooners come, we gather at Five Guys and TJ Maxx and try to muster up some Friday night fun.
Whereas North Port lacks a downtown, it more than makes up for it with natural majestic areas. We have worldly wonders in our midst, ancient Indian burial sites, and healing waters so powerful that people come from all over the world to dip their bodies in. They chuckle that the locals don’t even understand what they have in their own backyards. Warm Mineral Springs and Little Salt Spring are significant archaeological sites that are largely overlooked by those who live nearby. Though Little Salt Spring is not accessible to the public and remains owned by the University of Miami, Warm Mineral Springs is open year-round. What some might describe as a nasty pond with stinky water, full of foreign-speaking swimmers, is mostly true, except the water is murky because it is hundreds of feet deep, with thousands of gallons of fresh water welling up every hour. It smells of old eggs because it has the highest mineral content in the United States, third highest in the world and one of the main components is sulfur, which is smelly. And as for the foreign-speaking population, they have spent thousands of dollars to fly across the world to arrive at Warm Mineral Springs. I wonder if the Europeans are wrong, or maybe us locals should skip the synthetic drugs and doctors and take a dip in the Fountain of Youth.
Another project that has been somewhat controversial is the Cool Today Park, Spring Training home of the Atlanta Braves. The burning question on everyone’s mind is, “Where is it?” North Port? West Villages? Venice? The answer remains uncertain, though I believe it is all being blamed on the United States Post Office whose assigned ZIP codes do not align with North Port. But, on behalf of North Port tax-payers, I say, “Welcome Atlanta Braves to North Port!” We do not have to wait until spring to enjoy this beautiful new baseball stadium. Concerts, movies, baseball tournaments and other community activities are planned throughout the summer. Plus, Tomahawk Tiki Bar will be open year-round, so stop in for a bite to eat while you peruse the new Braves’ digs.
Besides the one questionable motel in North Port, which in the past has been party to monkeys and murder, there really is no place to hunker down for the night. There is the quaint Warm Mineral Springs Motel which is cool to examine with its Sarasota School of Architecture design. But it also might resemble Bad Times at the El Royale to drivers along the US 41 North Port corridor. Soon, travelers will have more options. North Port will be getting its first new hotel in 46 years as Hampton Inn & Suites Hotel is set to open a 100-room hotel just west of Sumter Boulevard with an anticipated open date some time in 2020.
Last, but not least ( just ask the kids), is the much-awaited North Port Aquatic Center which opens this July. With a lazy river, 25-meter stretch pool, multiple waterslides and onsite concession area, families will finally have a place to play on hot, summer days. Parents everywhere are breathing a sigh of relief for not having to drive an hour for a fun event for the kids. For admission prices and more information, please visit The City of North Port FB page.
It used to be that Sarasota received all the nods and accolades. Now, North Port is receiving its due credit as a safe, closely-knit place to raise a family, retire, and to open a business. Gone are the days of rigidity and an environment of “no” facing developers and builders. Hopefully, forward-thinking leaders and a loyal population of residents quietly waiting for amenities to arrive will reap the benefits of growth and innovation. Last weekend, after an expensive trip to Sarasota’s UTC with Disney-like traffic at that particular exit, an $80 lunch where I only had a salad, and a 30-minute wait at Shake Shack, I was ready to head back to sleepy little North Port. We are glad to be a part of the Sarasota County family but, like an impetuous teen, we are ready to spread our wings and see what we can do.
Photos courtesy of The City of North Port and Cool Today Park Facebook pages.