Runners rockin' Nike beneath the lakefront bandshell as they accept awards. Tots chasing bubbles across a manicured lawn dotted with picnic tables. Couples sipping beverages at an al fresco cafe overlooking the water where kayakers paddle and children fish.
It was an epic weekend at Founder's Square at Babcock Ranch with a decidely hometown feel, the atmosphere promised when developer Syd Kitson envisioned a new community of 50,000 people where cattle had roamed and rock mining equipment pulled boulders from the dirt.
The two-day Founder's Festival held at the new development off State Road 31 just north of the Lee County Civic Center unveiled to the public the fledging community's heart - the "downtown" park; Woodlea Hall, Babcock's first civic building; the community's first two business ventures, Curry Creek Outfitters and the Table & Tap, an indoor-outdoor restaurant and beer garden; along with a brand-new charter school expected to be ready for its first students this fall.
Kitson & Partners Chair and CEO Syd Kitson cuts the traditional ribbon at the opening the Founder's Festival at Babcock Ranch Saturday. The two-day Founder’s Festival held at the new development off State Road 31 just north of the Lee County Civic Center unveiled to the public the fledging community’s heart — the “downtown” park; Woodlea Hall, Babcock’s first civic building; the community’s first two business ventures, Curry Creek Outfitters and the Table & Tap, an indoor-outdoor restaurant and beer garden; along with a brand-new charter school expected to be ready for its first students this fall.
"Our goal from the beginning is to create the most sustainable town in America," said Kitson, chairman and CEO of Kitson & Partners, as he stood beneath the bandshell for the official ribbon cutting. "All of you here today are here to see the birth of a new town."
Touted as the country's first solar-powered community, the town under construction by Kitson & Partners just across the Lee/Charlotte county line will feature 19,500 residences and 6 million square feet of commercial, office and industrial space at buildout.
Eleven hundred residential units - 700 single-family homes, 70 townhome/villas and 330 condominium units are planned for Phase 1, with the first neighborhood, Lake Timber, under way adjacent to the downtown area.
The first models range from the mid $400,000s to nearly $1 million and include furnished homes by Stock Development and Homes by Towne.
Home prices, first expected to range from the mid $200,000s to $800,000-plus, will actually start a little lower in answer to some concerns about affordability within the new community," Kitson told the crowd spread out upon the grass.
"We promised you we're going to have a full range of prices," he said.
Home prices will start from around $179,000 to the low $200,000s, he said, adding Lennar has signed to become one of the selected builders.
"Everything here is about affordability," Kitson added.
Two other things were particularly stressed: commitment to the community's children through the newly formed Babcock Ranch Foundation, and preservation - and enhancement - of the site's natural attributes.
Money raised from Beer Garden sales during founder's fest were to be dedicated to the foundation; tree plantings set for Sunday were to be part of the ongoing conservation mission, Kitson said.
Attendance greatly exceeded expectations on both Saturday and Sunday.
Festival organizers said they had hoped to attract around 2,500 people each of the two days. According to police estimates, total turnout was 15,000 20,000.
The Babcock Ranch project has been years in the making; from land purchase to ground breaking, it took more than a decade.
Kitson originally purchased a total of 92,000 acres in 2006, then sold 73,000 acres of the most environmentally sensitive areas to the state for preservation.
That left about 18,000 for the town Kitson will now build over the next 20 years - and of that 18,000 acres, about half have been earmarked for greenways, parks and lakes.
State Rep. Matt Caldwell, there for the ribbon cutting, hailed the concept.
"Fantastic," he said. "It's a vision that has been a long time coming. It's a great example of how to achieve landscape scale conservation and still have a great place for people to live."
Lee County Commissioner Cecil L. Pendergrass took a similar view.
"Awesome," he said. "It's an exciting day. Unbelievable. They've not only embraced the environment, they enhanced it."
He looked around.
"This is a feasting ground for all the eagles and the hawks in the area," Pendergrass said.
The environmental aspect was a draw for many of those who turned out.
Among them was Wolfgang Fink, a winter visitor.
"Because I'm interested in the solar energy," he said when asked why he decided to attend.
His hometown in Germany makes full use of solar, he added.
"It's the future," Fink said.
Others commented on the water views and abundance of native vegetation and plantings.
"So far it's beautiful," said Rebecca Giusti, who made the drive from Arcadia to see her fiance run in the opening 5K. "It looks like a beautiful place to live. We're looking forward to going into some of the models."
Others embraced the amenities for families.
"We've been following the progress," said Collin Smith as he and wife Suzie watched their daughters Gracelynn, 1, and Braelynn, 3, play with children on the Founder's Square park splash pad. "It's great. If the opportunity is right, we might move here."
Model homes and the outfitters store and restaurant are now open. Regular events, including various fitness classes, yoga classes, runs, a concert series and a farmer's market are scheduled weekly.
Visit babcockranch.com for more information, including registration, which is required for some events.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include crowd estimates.