Keeping the Customer Satisfied
|In this Florida development, community and schools are as much a part of the sales pitch as bedrooms and swimming pools.|
Stately royal palms line the highway exit that brings the homebuyers here. A sign beckons from the median on Arvida Parkway, chock with lush grasses and tropical plants: "Welcome to Arvida's Weston. Population: 29,150."
Inside the sales and information center, the strains of Louis Armstrong singing "What a Wonderful World" waft over the gentle hum of air conditioning. Color photos of Boy Scouts and of children running through a sprinkler dot the walls amid archetypal 1950s pictures of Dad mowing the lawn and kids waving miniature American flags for a Fourth of July parade.
"We're glad you've chosen to visit our hometown today," reads a sign that thousands of potential buyers pass each year on their way to look at houses that sell for $85,000 to upwards of a million dollars. Carved out of 10,000 acres of former wetlands, Weston is a painstakingly designed and carefully marketed product.
"A hometown is more than just a place, it's the values you grew up with. ... It's the comfort of family, the acceptance of friends, the sense of belonging to a community that's as much a part of you as you are of it."
Community is a big part of what's for sale here, not just a plot of land and a house. And a big part of that community--and the sales pitch--are the schools.
To many homebuyers, good schools are the ultimate amenity. And in the quest for ways to beat the competition, Arvida has zeroed in on education as one way to add value to its product.
Weston is one of Florida's largest planned housing developments--complete with its own registered trademark. Arvida, based in Boca Raton, Fla., is one of the largest developers and purveyors of planned communities, with a $45 million net profit reported in 1995.
Each week, moving vans bring about 20 new families here. When it's "built out" about five years from now, Weston will be home to as many as 50,000 residents, many of them school-age children.
Last September, Weston incorporated as its own city, tucked away in Broward County's westernmost reaches, about 20 miles from downtown Fort Lauderdale.
Everywhere, the meticulous planning is evident. Houses are nestled within immaculate, gated "pods" or "villages," each with its own community park and swimming pool. Private security patrols roam Weston's streets. Curving cul-de-sacs keep traffic slow and allow streets to become "destinations" rather than "pass throughs" for speeding cars, says George C. Yeonas, Weston's general manager.
Sidewalks and bike paths link the villages and traverse the regional parks with their roller-hockey rinks, tennis courts, and soccer and softball fields. Within the sprawling development's boundaries lie doctors' offices, grocery stores, churches, synagogues, commercial parks, schools, and shopping plazas with everything from Starbucks Coffee to health spas.
But the most impressive evidence of Arvida's attention to planning detail may be its commitment to schools, and the attempts to cash in on that commitment as a marketing strength.
Arvida has sought to position itself in that still-evolving territory by hiring John A. Murphy for the newly created position of vice president of educational services. A former superintendent of schools in North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenburg district and in Maryland's Prince George's County, the 61-year-old executive is an outspoken veteran educator with a national reputation.
It is hardly unusual for a developer to forge links with the local schools or to use schools as a marketing tool. But officials at the National Association of Homebuilders and other industry observers say that by bringing Mr. Murphy on board, Arvida has taken the education angle to a new level.
|John A. Murphy serves as something of a behind-the-scenes quality control mechanism.|
"That's really above and beyond," says Melissa Herron, a senior editor who covers marketing issues for Builder magazine in Washington. Developers are increasingly on the lookout for new ways to distinguish their projects, Ms. Herron says, but by no means are they flocking to education as a means to do so. "I think they're definitely getting savvier about it, but at this point it's spotty."
Mr. Murphy's role is still evolving, but his basic mission is this: To ensure that residents of Arvida communities are happy with their education options, to nurture in Arvida developments grassroots support for high-quality education, and to foster communication between parents, Arvida, and the schools.
He serves as something of a behind-the-scenes quality control mechanism. But he is acutely aware that as an outsider, his--and Arvida's--influence has limits.
"I have to sell myself to school systems so I'm not an interference or threat, but a help," Mr. Murphy says. "You can't force yourself on a school district. But we'd love to be able to offer assistance wherever schools would like it."
Resource for Parents
To boost Arvida's education clout, and to stay on top of school trends, the former superintendent also works as a paid consultant to school systems through Arvida's Education Partners Inc. To date, he has worked with educators in Chicago, Kansas City, Mo., Lawrence, Mass., and Florida's Lee County on issues ranging from standards and accountability to desegregation and long-range planning. Eventually, the idea is to offer those same services to schools serving Arvida communities.
Mr. Murphy has already tried out his new role in Water's Edge, an Arvida community outside Atlanta. When a number of new schools were slated to be built last fall, parents there wanted to make sure those schools didn't replicate problems they saw in existing district schools.
Mr. Murphy worked with the parents to present their concerns to school officials. The result: The district dispatched the principals of the new schools to meet with Water's Edge residents to discuss expectations and changes.
In Weston, he has served mostly as a resource for local parents interested in education, working to keep education a community priority in preparation for Arvida's pullout once development is finished. One of the most pressing concerns here has been the shortage of classroom space in the booming 217,000-student Broward County school system, which adds some 10,000 students each year to its rosters.
Weston's master plan calls for nine public schools. Four are up and running in permanent buildings, and portable classrooms house a separate kindergarten.
Earlier this year, when some Weston schools showed up on the district's list of schools slated for year-round schedules and double sessions to ease classroom crowding, Weston parents hit the roof. Arvida, the county commission, the school board, and Weston parents hammered out a deal. Arvida pledged $4.2 million to set up roughly 90 portable classrooms--or three temporary schools--in Weston by fall at no cost to the school system.
Meanwhile, the developer has agreed to front $6 million in interest-free loans to the school board to start building permanent schools in Weston. The district will pay back that money only if it can pass a bond issue in the next 10 years. Otherwise, Arvida will swallow the loss.
Where the district's five-year construction plan did not include any new schools for Weston before the deal, the Weston schools now sit squarely on that list.
The company that gave birth to Weston has a long history of developing resorts, golf courses, and planned communities in Florida. It has also built housing developments in California, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas. Arvida, named for its founder, Arthur Vining Davis, an aluminum tycoon and land baron, was established in 1958.
|Getting Weston's parents to support education is not a tough sell.|
When the company started work in Weston in the early 1980s, the development became Broward County's westernmost frontier. For most of this century, grazing cattle dotted the land that would become Weston. Early residents, the first of whom moved into Weston in 1986, had to contend with the occasional alligator and other critters.
From 1984 to 1987, Arvida was owned by the Walt Disney Co., which has set out to build and help run a "school of the future" for residents in its own planned community, Celebration, just south of Walt Disney World. Early Weston advertisements featured Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino--a Weston pioneer--posing with Mickey Mouse. Today, Arvida is owned by JMB Realty Corp. of Chicago.
In strategy sessions a few years back, Arvida officials realized that it was too easy for other companies to copy the physical design of Arvida developments. They needed to explore new areas that were less easily duplicated, Mr. Yeonas says. They consulted with futurists and trend watchers, cultural anthropologists, and community-health specialists to discuss what the hometown of the future should look like.
Arvida came up with several "core competencies" that it would focus on, ranging from security and leisure to recreation and education. Hiring Mr. Murphy was part of that vision, although Arvida officials are quick to note that the ways his involvement will play out are still on the drawing board.
It may mean creating educational industrial parks of sorts, grouping K-12 public, private, and charter schools with community colleges. It could mean offering comprehensive education services for residents of all ages. Or it may mean building homes with the capacity to handle technology such as interactive television to foster school-home connections.
Schools and Security
Getting Weston's parents to support education is not a tough sell. Nearly three-fourths of its homeowners hold college degrees and consider themselves professionals. More than half are between 30 and 44. About 40 percent draw annual household incomes of over $100,000. Compared with the average Broward County public school, Weston schools boast higher test scores and enjoy some of the most active PTAs.
Some Weston students attend private schools located within the city boundaries; other schools shuttle students directly from the Weston sales center to campuses in Fort Lauderdale and elsewhere.
Though Arvida says it does not track the race and ethnicity of its residents, the public schools serving Weston children tend to have higher white enrollments than the 47 percent reported countywide.
N¡dia O'Neal, a mother of three, says that in the seven years she's lived in Weston, she's seen mounting evidence of diversity, especially among Hispanics. Many Weston schools run English-as-a-second-language programs. And the local Publix supermarkets now sport shelves packed with Goya and Palacio de Oriente brands of marinated sardines, octopus, and mussels alongside the more pedestrian Starkist tuna.
Most Weston parents say that schools and security were the chief reasons they settled here. Many feel that while the schools are far from perfect, they are among the best in the county and the state. And that essentially is the message Arvida gives to potential homebuyers, says Jean Costain, a Weston sales associate.
"I tell them everything you've heard about South Florida schools is true, but we're hoping to make it better," says Ms. Costain, who gladly helps customers research local SAT scores or gifted programs. "These parents will quiz you on the details. Schools really are the number-one question from folks."
|Not all the parties in the larger community are happy with Arvida's arrangement with Broward County to bring some of the district's newest schools to Weston.|
Potential buyers are also given several company publications, including "We've Done Your Homework!," which offers individual profiles of Weston-area public and private schools, complete with test scores and teacher-pupil ratios.
That package clinched the deal for Janet Taetzsch, a mother of three who moved here two years ago from Pittsford, N.Y.
Other area developers couldn't tell her about the schools her children would be attending, she says. "I was impressed that Arvida had thought about it. That really sold me."
It also didn't hurt that her real estate agent informed her that Broward County schools Superintendent Frank R. Petruzielo lives in Weston and sends his son to Weston's Tequesta Trace Middle School.
When Debi Levy and her family moved here more than five years ago, she was less than enthusiastic about living in such a tightly controlled community. "I hated it with a passion," recalls the Pittsfield, Mass., native.
But her husband, originally from Colombia, liked the security, especially since he works long hours as a cardiologist. And she liked the sound of the schools.
But her oldest son, Natan, started kindergarten in a portable classroom with 36 children. From the day Eagle Point Elementary School's permanent building opened, it was packed.
Ms. Levy now heads the Weston-based Coalition for School Improvements, which works to alleviate overcrowding and boost quality in Broward County schools. The group, which has worked with Mr. Murphy, helped push for the Arvida deal that will bring new schools to Weston.
And the place has grown on Ms. Levy.
She points out of her home-office window to the street where 8-year-old Natan and his younger brothers, Josie and Gabriel, play roller hockey with friends. "Now I wouldn't trade where I live for anything," she says. "I recognize all the flaws and deficiencies. But look at those kids, do they look like they're suffering?"
Issues of Equity
While Weston itself is a community, it is also part of a much broader one. And not all the parties in that larger community are happy with Arvida's arrangement with Broward County to bring some of the district's newest schools to Weston.
The deal, sealed in December, triggered a storm of protest from residents and representatives of the county's older, eastern neighborhoods that lack a corporate benefactor like Arvida. Though the district has historically devoted more of its capital-improvement funds to the county's eastern sections, east Broward County cried foul that Weston was able to leapfrog onto the school building list.
For Arvida, the $10.2 million deal was crucial, clearing the way for county approval to continue building in Weston and to mollify frustrated parents. But critics of the deal point out that the Broward County district must still borrow $48 million of taxpayer money to build Weston's new schools.
"It's a matter of fairness," says Lois Wexler, one of two school board members to oppose the deal. "Weston is now at the top of the list," while parents in other neighborhoods may have to wait for several years. "I admire their tenacity and fighting for what they think is right," she adds, "but I have to look at what's right for this whole county and community."
Mr. Petruzielo, the superintendent, says the equity issue was a struggle. But with the district about $1.4 billion short of the money it needs to spend to keep pace with soaring enrollment, he and most other officials thought that to refuse Arvida would have meant looking a gift horse in the mouth.
|Master-planned communities like Weston are precisely that: planned.|
For his part, Mr. Petruzielo says he welcomes private-sector help from companies like Arvida, but adds that the lines must be clearly drawn. Many in Broward County say Mr. Murphy has kept a deliberately low profile in Weston so as not to ruffle the superintendent's feathers.
"It's not a personal thing. He's not the superintendent," Mr. Petruzielo says of Mr. Murphy. "And you can't suggest that you have the same motives as when you were a superintendent. You don't work for the same people or draw a paycheck from the same place."
'Island of Excellence'
Western High School sits just outside Weston's boundaries. While the majority of its 3,000 students live in Weston, the school also draws from a nearby mobile home park.
As with many of the schools Weston children attend, Western counts Arvida among its many "corporate partners." The company has contributed thousands of dollars to a private Western High foundation started by parents to deliver the latest technology and other amenities to the classroom.
It's all help that Principal Bruce C. Wagar welcomes. But ask him whether he feels particularly accountable to Arvida to produce results and the answer is: No more and no less than with any other member of the community.
"I'm far too expensive to be bought," Mr. Wagar says with a chuckle.
Arvida officials emphasize that their help does not stop at Weston's boundaries. The topiary garden in Weston's Eagle Point Elementary and Western High's swaying palm trees come courtesy of Arvida--but the company has provided landscaping to schools in the opposite end of the county as well.
"Being an island of excellence in a sea of misery" is not the way to go, says Roy Rogers, one of Arvida's senior vice presidents. As an avid horticulturist, he is a frequent visitor to area schools to give talks or work with student environmental clubs. "It's easy to get the perspective that this is selfish," he says. "But it's not true."
Following the Plan?
Master-planned communities like Weston are precisely that: planned.
More than a decade ago, Arvida mapped out the building blocks that would eventually make up Weston, carving out space for commercial zones, parks, water, and schools. In developer-speak, even the pieces of "street furniture," items such as light posts and mailboxes, match within every village.
Residents abide by CC&Rs--codes, covenants, and restrictions--that limit house colors to an approved palette and ban such activities as hanging backyard laundry lines. Small rebellions surface here and there: Ms. Levy's mostly glass front door is framed by a renegade purple trim.
Like most everything else here, though, diversity exists within certain limits.
"People always want to know where the 'bad' neighborhoods or schools are in Weston," says Ms. Costain, the sales associate. "I tell them, 'Well, there are none here.'"
For residents like Shelley Eichner, who is on her second Weston home in nine years, that's a comforting fact.
"I want my neighbors to be just like me, and I want my kids to have my values, which are supported by the community," she says. "I want them to associate with kids who are very similar--not by race or religion--but with similar values and goals," says Ms. Eichner, a Montreal native who works in city planning. "Similar people with similar values and outlook and basic socioeconomic levels--that makes a community, to me."
For others, the relative homogeneity can feel stifling at times. And the notion of what constitutes community is clearly in the eye of the beholder.
Pam Clark, a native Floridian, takes her three children on regular trips to the courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, where her mother works as a judge, for a taste of "the real world."
'Arvida basically did everything before. Now, it's a shift of
control and destiny.'
Some of what drew the Valdez family to Weston five years ago are the same things that sometimes trouble Scott Valdez about the community: it is safe, clean, quiet, and contained. Since her husband, Robert, frequently travels abroad for work, Ms. Valdez is often a single parent during the week.
"This is about as secure as you're going to get," she says with a laugh. "But it doesn't mean that I don't like to go other places where it's not planned, because it gets to you. I don't want to become a Stepford wife."
Ms. Taetzsch left 15 years' worth of roots in suburban upstate New York to move to Weston when her husband, a finance executive with the Eastman Kodak Co., was transferred. In her mind, all the planning in the world can't force community cohesion.
"It's not really a community here, the way I see it," she says. "I don't think you can master-plan communication. You can do traffic lights and roads and schools, but you can't plan other things."
Work in Progress
Arvida has certainly tried.
The company has helped organize Weston newcomer clubs, hired a full-time community coordinator, opened a community center, sponsored health seminars, and issued grants to an organization Ms. Valdez started to help subsidize after-school activities for middle schoolers.
Weston residents can log on via the Internet to Town Talk, "an interactive community network," to check into the latest Weston news and information on clubs, community services, and schools. They can also post messages on the on-line community bulletin board or participate in a virtual town forum.
Weston is still a work in progress, dotted with signs marking plots for a future town center, future commercial areas, future homes. While Arvida is responsible for creating Weston, the company's target date to pull out once development is completed is 2002.
Arvida has enjoyed quasi-governmental powers under a new state law that enabled the creation of a special taxing district to develop Weston in 1981.
Much of that responsibility is now being turned over to Weston residents, who last week elected their first city commissioners and a mayor.
A management philosophy for the new city is taking shape, with Weston envisioned as a "contract city" with no city hall, one city employee (a city manager), and most city services contracted out. Neighborhood and Weston-wide homeowner associations will continue to govern architectural issues and a few other matters.
"Arvida basically did everything before," says City Commissioner Eric Hersh. "Now, it's a shift of control and destiny."
But it's clear that the notion still requires some getting used to.
At a meeting of the Weston Community Center advisory board, members discuss trying to boost attendance and interest in the center, which, while it offers an array of courses for children and adults, has had mixed success.
One board member suggests tapping Arvida for more professional public relations and marketing help. "You can't just go running to Arvida for everything," responds Weston resident and board member Sarah Dixon Erb, in a tone bordering on exasperation. "It's up to us now. It's grassroots."
Ultimately, the degree to which Weston's grassroots follow Arvida's master plan remains to be seen.
A small sign on the community center's message board informs residents that the center itself is a one-year pilot program and may be discontinued without notice after July 31.
"The community will have to decide whether it's a priority or not," says Jack Perkin, the center's volunteer chairman. The transplanted New Yorker gathers his papers from the meeting and starts flicking off lights. "Maybe Weston's just too new to have real community," he muses quietly. "I'm not so sure it's 'build it and they will come.'"