British investors target foreclosed vacation and luxury homes in Four Corners.

DAVENPORT – A section of Central Florida that grew by leaps and bounds when the housing market was on fire, and has since suffered a high home foreclosure rate, could be in for some welcome financial relief, courtesy of foreign investors.
The British have long had a love affair with Northeast Polk County and the Four Corners area where U.S. 192 and U.S. 27 meet, since the area is close to Walt Disney World and the other theme parks, and has an ample supply of vacation homes.  In fact, the vacation home industry has been booming throughout Northeast Polk County for the past decade.
But the growth of residential subdivisions along U.S. 27 in the first half of the last decade, which wiped out so many vacant citrus groves to make way for new housing units, turned into a nightmare for local Realtors when the housing boom crashed in 2008.  It left the region with a high inventory of newly built, unsold homes, and a rising foreclosure rate.

U.S. 27 runs through Northeast Polk County, an area where the vacation home industry boomed during the past decade.

A lot of that inventory, which has been slow to clear the market, could soon get cleared off the books altogether, said L. Scott Brown, a partner and licensed title agent with Orlando Title Services in Orlando.  He said a group of British investors have contacted him about their interest in chartering a new company that would purchase a lot of unsold vacation home properties along U.S. 27, at a time when too much competition has brought the prices down from the historic highs in 2005-2006.
The new corporation, Brown said, would be set up on the islands of Guernsey, which lie in the bay of St. Malo in the English Channel, about 30 miles from the north coast of France and 70 miles from the south coast of England.  Guernsey is a tax free island, and offers British business owners the equivalent of setting up an American company in the Bahamas.
“All the guys are British,” Brown said.  “There’s an IPO (Initial Public Offering) that’s supposed to be released in the United Kingdom for the sale of hundreds of vacation homes in the (U.S.) 27 corridor. These will be homes that have been foreclosed on.”
The Four Corners area – where the counties of Lake, Orange, Osceola and Polk counties meet – already has a growing number of British pubs and restaurants, and a lot of the vacation homes there are run by property managers who relocated here from Britain to get in on this booming industry.  The short term rental home initially had its strongest market among the British and other Europeans, who came to the region for extended stays of a month or longer, and wanted to rent a fully furnished house for their families.  These home provide multiple bedrooms, a kitchen, game room and private pool — much more space than a hotel or motel room.  Even as the local housing market has floundered, there continues to be interest among foreign nationals in purchasing second homes here.

Sadly, far too many of the homes in Northeast Polk County and Four Corners have been short sales and bank foreclosures.

“There’s a lot of Canadians coming down and buying homes in the $100,000 range,” said Paul Dudley, who moved to Four Corners from England to run a local business, Florida Villa Services Inc., who sells game room equipment to residential and vacation home properties in the area.  “For that price, it’s all condos and townhouses.”
The second home and vacation home industries have dominated the Four Corners real estate market in the past decade, but it’s been a struggle in the past two years once the housing market collapsed.  Nevertheless, Brown said the British investors see an ideal opportunity to buy up new vacation homes at low prices, and then look for a healthy return on that investment as the market improves.
“They’re going to come in and buy up 6 percent of the vacation homes in Central Florida,” said Brown.  “They’ve contacted a couple of banks that have a huge portfolio of foreclosed homes. We’re going to know in the next two weeks if that will fly, but if it all flies, it will be great because it will remove a lot of dead inventory off the market.” 

L. Scott Brown, a partner in the mortgage firm Orlando Title Services, says British investors may buy up a bulk of foreclosed homes on U.S. 27.

Brown said the investors are looking at managing the properties for several years, then selling them.
“That can be a very exciting thing,” he said.
Pete Howlett, a Four Corners Realtor who runs Orlando Vacation Realty in Davenport, said clearing excess inventory off the list of unsold homes would help enormously in stabilizing the Four Corners real estate market.
“This market needs something like that to get rid of all the dead inventory,” Howlett said.  “Then we’ll see some return of prices when we get rid of all that dead wood.”
Brown said some local subdivisions are already seeing the inventory of homes for sale fall below 5 percent, which he said could soon put sellers in the driver’s seat once again.
“I’m seeing that in communities where the value has held up well,” he said.  “You’re seeing low inventories there, and with low inventory, it’s not long before it flips and becomes a seller’s market again.”

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Eating healthy for just $40 a week? The federal government says no, but The Tea Party counters that.

ORLANDO – It can all be as a simple as having just $40 – maybe even $39 and change.

And it doesn’t require the federal government to look after you, the Tea Party says.

On the same day that President Obama was signing a bill to overhaul the nation’s food safety laws, Peg Dunmire, chairman of the Florida Tea Party, was delivering a very different message from her Lady Liberty Hour radio program: let’s take care of our own food and eating habits, and not look to the federal government to do it for us. 

Peg Dunmire, chairman of the Florida Tea Party, says people can eat healthy meals that cost less than $41 a week.

And that includes teaching even the poorest among us that they can shop – and buy – healthy, nutritious foods at their local grocery store without the federal government telling people what foods they should buy to maintain good health – or even providing the money to help them buy that food, Dunmire said.

“Our federal government spends $94 billion on food, and Peg Dunmire can tell you how to spend $40,” she said.  “This is truly something our government has taken over as part of the Nanny state.”

Dunmire’s radio show, which runs from noon to 1 p.m. daily on the Phoenix Network, railed against the federal government’s involvement in setting food safety standards that could just as easily be handled at the local level.

“If anyone thinks an inspection once a year or once every five years makes someplace safer, then they just don’t understand the nature of business,” Dunmire said, adding that if restaurants have poor cleanliness standards that leave their customers feeling ill, it’s a safe bet that word of it will get out quickly and that establishment won’t stay open for long.

“You will go out of business if you have a dirty establishment and you are serving food,” she said.  “Even if you don’t have a (local) ratings system, word gets around that people are getting sick there.”

Around the same time Dunmire was on the radio, the cable news stations were focusing on the bill passed by Congress last year and signed into law by President Obama today, that gives the Food and Drug Administration new and expanded authority to recall tainted food and step-up inspections of food processing plants.

The bill also requires large manufacturers to put together food safety plans.

Dunmire said the idea that the government can protect everyone from potentially tainted food borders on “hysteria” – not to mention a fundamental misunderstanding of what the government can actually accomplish.

“There is legitimacy in us being able to inspect food,” she said, “but the government is not what brings you food safety.”

People should make a habit of shopping or dining at places that have a good reputation for being clean and well maintained, rather than asking the federal government to pretend it can magically ensure that all these establishments are safe. She also said the federal government should stop spending so much on food stamps and other programs designed to help low income families buy food.

How do people know the food they buy at local supermarkets or grocery stores is safe to eat? Peg Dunmire says people should talk to one another to know which establishments have the best reputation for clean standards, and not expect the federal government to do that for them.

“They say, ‘If you’re poor, you can’t eat healthy,’ “ Dunmire said.  “Wrong. I’m here to tell you how you can eat healthy on $40 per person a week.”

Dunmire said she logged onto the Web site for the Publix supermarket chain and did some price shopping.  The average family can spend $14 a week on meat, $10 on produce, $8 on dairy products, $5 on grains, and $3 on bulk items – all of it healthy and nutritious.

“You can go to Publix and get one dozen eggs for $2,” she said.  “You can get two cans of tuna for $3.20.”

Add to that packages of carrots, onions, and celery for less than $2 each, and a pound of apples, plus five frozen vegetable packages for $10.

Toss in a gallon of milk for $3.50, packets of yogurt for $2.50, and two containers of oatmeal through a buy one, get one free deal, and you have the makings of a grocery bill that comes in under $40. Dunmire said she did the shopping herself on the Publix Web site, and “My grocery bill would have been $39.53.  You can have a healthy menu – there is no doubt about it.”

What Americans don’t need, she said, is the federal government spending so much on food stamps that tell recipients what they can or can’t buy.  She recommended that people looking to eat healthy try having oatmeal with milk and fruit for breakfast, a tuna or egg salad sandwich with an apple for lunch, and meat and vegetables for dinner, with some yogurt for dessert.  She offered that advice for free — a stark contrast, she said, compared to how much it costs the federal government to do the same thing, all on the taxpayers’ dime.

“It’s all healthy, nothing is processed,” she said.  “Americans really don’t know how to eat well. Our government is trying so hard to teach us to eat healthy, and it’s just not working.”

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Insisting that “Today, good isn’t good enough,” Teresa Jacobs becomes Orange County’s new mayor.

ORLANDO – Taking the reigns of Orange County’s government at a time of double digit unemployment and a housing market that may not have hit bottom, Mayor Teresa Jacobs was sworn in today with a pledge to make citizens, not politicians, her top priority.

“Our greatest asset is the people who live and work here,” Jacobs said during the ceremony. “Our greatest asset is you.”

Crowds of people -- the very citizens that Mayor Teresa Jacobs says the government needs to improve the local economy -- gather outside the Linda W. Chapin Theatre at the Orange County Convention Center for Jacobs' swearing in ceremony.

Jacobs took the oath of office along with the newly elected and re-elected members of the Orange County Commission inside the Linda W. Chapin Theatre at the Orange County Convention Center.  While expressing pride in the faith that citizens demonstrated in them during last November’s election, several of the commissioners stressed the very difficult economic times this region is facing, with a promise to make jobs and economic development their biggest issue.

Ted Edwards was sworn in as commissioner for District 5, replacing the man that Jacobs defeated in the mayor’s race, Bill Segal.  “I had a reputation for being fiscally tight, and that was in good times,” Edwards said.  “Now we’re in rough times.”

District 4 Commissioner Jennifer Thompson, who takes the seat of former Commissioner and mayoral candidate Linda Stewart, likewise acknowledged the economic difficulties this county faces.

“I hope in the short term to create jobs, but in the long term to create an economic future that we can leave for our grandchildren,” she said.

The problems confronting the economy are steep. The unemployment rate in Florida remains in double digits, housing prices continue to fall, and the state continues to post one of the nation’s highest home foreclosure rates.

But there were words of hope and encouragement from the county leaders, including outgoing mayor Richard Crotty, who was on hand for the official passing of the gavel to Jacobs.

“I will tell you, I believe Orange County is in good hands,” Crotty said.  “We are going to move forward as a great community.”

Jacobs, though, offered less in the way of platitudes, and more of a frank acknowledgement of just how difficult the next mayor’s task will be taking on what she called “the toughest economy since the Great Depression.”

A former county commissioner from a West Orange County district, Jacobs won a landslide victory last November over Segal, taking 65 percent of the vote.  Looking back at the campaign, Jacobs said “It was fun. It was tough. But in the end, the experience was rewarding beyond measure.”

It was also sobering, she said, because as she traveled across the county meeting with voters, she found a lot of people who had a deep sense of pessimism about government in general and politicians in particular, and the ability of either to correct the economy distress so many are experiencing, Jacobs said.

“Unfortunately, many said they had lost faith in politicians, and maybe that’s nothing new,” Jacobs said.  “I am determined to create an Orange County government that our citizens can and do believe in.”

As mayor, Jacobs promised to operate under the principles of fairness, honesty and trust, and also to work closely and in cooperative with other county and local elected leaders.

“I have a plan for a stronger Orange County,” she said, “but I can’t do it alone.”

That also means getting citizens to believe in county government, and to work with municipal leaders to make the country stronger.

“I also believe we have the beginnings of a reenergized citizenry,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs' oath of office ceremony drew a large crowd today.

To improve an economy that’s been struggling since 2007, Jacobs promised to “work to attract better paying jobs” and to promote economic development by holding eight jobs summits throughout the year, and to streamline the approval process for building permits.

She also pledged to reduce any wasteful spending and ensure that taxpayers get their money’s worth out of county government.

“We will run a fiscally conservative administration,” Jacobs said, “and not burden our children’s future with risky debt.”

She also promised an administration that would be about action, not speeches, saying “Folks, this isn’t just talk.  Today, good isn’t good enough.”

Jacobs is the fourth mayor of Orange County, following Linda Chapin, Mel Martinez, and Crotty.

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