I have to admit I was a bit surprised when we received the question about what we would do for books. Our little hamlet had existed quite alright without any library of any kind, but given that he was willing to be a patron of a library, we got to work and figured out that a small branch library where he could pick up his books on hold closeby that would also allow for some free internet access for some of the people here would be a good idea. To be sure, it wasn’t a big library, but it did provide somewhere between Estacada and Colton for people to get books and it provided a bit of something to our community that had been lacking. Since it didn’t require much if anything in the way of costs for the county as a whole, it wasn’t hard to get it approved, and we were happy to be able to hire a few people to work in Colton, as that isn’t something that happens very often. Having a trained library staff here gave at least some people a reason to drive here rather than have to go elsewhere, and it encouraged some of the other local businesses as well. The fact that he build a music studio here also was nice, as it gave our city a few areas where we could say that we were productive. We were all pretty happy to tweak Portland because if they didn’t want him, we were happy to have him ourselves.
I have to admit I was a bit surprised to talk with him personally about what he wanted to encourage around his homesite. When he was building his castle, he was also building a little music studio in the area to help encourage the local musical population and allow him to be productive in recording when he was here. He was also interested in helping to build the local library system, which surprised me a little. We don’t have many people around here, and the closest libraries are close to Valrico and Plant City. But he liked his books and he thought that by encouraging local businesses and infrastructure that when there were more people around here that it would be easier to support a genuine community. He was also hoping to help out with the historical importance of the area through restorations and historical reenactments. I think he had a vision of this area becoming increasingly popular given the expansion of Plant City and Lakeland, and he was a bit ahead of the curve in thinking that this lonesome area would attract at least a few people who wanted to be away from the massive sprawl with a bit more of a downhome atmosphere. It worked out really well for us as we had the chance to build a community more or less from scratch.
I must admit we had a bit of a complex relationship with him. He was certainly very critical of our attitudes about towns, but he gave us the chance to try an experiment, as it were, of testing out our views of a town that would avoid some of the difficulties we find in many municipalities where expenses far outweigh the tax revenue, and where big box building on stroads proves an inefficient way of building. He told us that he was doing some building and we had the chance to build a town more or less from scratch, and looked at how we could do it well in an area that had been a remote and rural part of Florida. We were dumb-founded, as we had written about ghost towns and sprawl in the area and could not believe that someone was going to take our ideas seriously even if he wasn’t necessarily a fan of ours. He said, I’m not convinced that you’re right, but we have a chance to build a town from the ground up as a developer, and I am working on my own construction here and I want to see if we can give this area a chance to develop well providing an area that is good for pedestrians, provides some chances for work and commercial establishments to flourish and profit, and has the infrastructure it needs to succeed for the long term. We would have like to have gotten further along with him there, as we had the chance to do something special to build a strong town in Fort Lonesome.
I must admit that it was a bit of a shock to me when he came to me to talk about what it would take to create a new incorporated city in southeastern Hillsborough county. Hillsborough County as a whole has never had the same approach to incorporation as most of the other counties in the area had. Both Plant City and Tampa have spread pretty widely, but other than that the only other incorporated places is Temple Terrace. The rules for incorporation in Florida are somewhat tricky, as they currently require a place to be two miles or more from a neighboring city unless there is a clear natural barrier, and also require a compact area with more than five thousand people. And he wanted to make sure that something like that could happen, that the area could support that kind of population. Previously attempts to build a town around a sawmill had failed and the area was more or less abandoned except for farming. He thought, though, that there was some room to build a community focused around art and music that could have the density needed to overcome the boundaries to incorporation faced in the area. At first some of the local farmers were not exactly on board with the idea, but once they realized that he was quite in favor of farming and wanted to keep the town compact enough that it wouldn’t sprawl into their fields or increase their property taxes, they were far more on board with it. He shared his own experience as the son of a dairy farmer and the problems of suburban sprawl and he even was able to help the local farmers with some of their own infrastructure needs that would keep them from having to drive so far as they had before, and also provide a ready and local market for their farmed goods.
So, how did you come to care about farming?
It was something that was in the blood. My father’s family were dairy farmers on about 120 acres of hilly Piedmont land in western Pennsylvania outside of a little town called Irwin. I never considered myself particularly cut out for farming work, but I have nothing but respect for it.
Were the locals a bit upset when you first talked about your plans for construction?
Oh yeah, they were afraid that their land was going to be bought out and parceled out for subdivisions. We had some work convincing them that we weren’t going to do that.
How does that happen?
There’s a common process when it comes to the loss of farmland. First, the population comes close enough to them that the land gets re-zoned to where it can not only be used for farmland but it could also be used for residential or commercial uses, and that drives up the taxes on the land because it becomes more profitable.
And then with the increased taxes, the farmers can’t pay as easily and they sell out?
Exactly, and when they sell out to developers, then more people come on the land and build subdivisions and the process begins again and again until an area loses most or all of its farming families.
Is that what happened where your family was from?
Yes, that’s what happened, as people would sell of parcels of land to build some houses on it, and then the area got crowded enough that there weren’t enough farmers left working to keep the operations going. Family farming is hard work and a lot of things can go wrong.
Have you ever read what Victor Davis Hanson said about farming?
Yeah, his material on farming struck a chord with me. There were definitely some parallels between his family’s struggle to get enough labor and to keep the family farm together and my own background.
How did you try to resolve these issues?
For one, we proposed to develop an area that was high enough density that it combined some low-cost townhouses, some local artistic focus that would encourage a bit higher density, and a pretty sharp divide between the town and country that would strongly discourage sprawl.
Why did you do it the way you did?
Well, if you haven’t noticed, sprawl is pretty much taking over most of Hillsborough County, and we thought this was an opportunity to build enough infrastructure to provide a vital center that could stop the relentless urge to build more suburban single family homes that cause a lot of traffic, and also provide enough things to do that people wouldn’t necessarily have to travel very far, while also preserving the rural feel of the rest of the area.
Do you mind if I change the subject?
Not at all.
Why did this area in particular appeal to you?
There were a lot of reasons. For one, I’ve always been a fairly lonely person and the history and remoteness of the area appealed to me. But I knew that when I built my own fortress of solitude that the things I did would draw at least some other people close to me, and I wanted that to work out in a more manageable fashion than is often the case. I also happened to grow up not too far from Plant City so this whole area was definitely something that interested me. I thought this area offered a lot of potential when it came to history and culture, and I wanted to help that potential to be developed.
Did you think that people would be interested in the history of the area?
I figured if locals weren’t interested in it that at least we could draw some tourists. There are plenty of possible sights that the area could offer, and with the help of some of the local businesses, we were able to build a critical mass of places that would draw interest.
Are you talking about the various historical and museum sites?
Yes, that’s right. We were able to work on a reconstruction of Fort Lonesome itself, which included some of the history of the Seminole Wars, and the reconstruction of the sawmill and original town, which also provided some interesting places for people to go, and then there was the Phosphate Museum which received the support of the local mining corporation as a way of building some better relationships with the neighbors. All of that gave us a critical mass of people that we could build a somewhat dense community alongside the castle and studio and the library that we set up. And that concentration allowed us to collect a reasonable population without the need for sprawl that happens so much around here.
Do you think you’re done here?
No, I think there’s a lot more that we can do here and we’re not done by any means.
What is the next project you’re working on?
Actually, there was a lot of demand for a local airport, so we’re working on building that, so that people can fly out of here and see some of the local landscape closer than Plant City or Tampa.
Can you fly yourself?
No, I’m not a pilot, and one of the fastest ways for musicians to die is to get involved in amateur aviation, so I have no intentions on doing any flying myself, but I did think it would be nice to be a passenger as well as a patron of the local flying population and to provide an outlet for those who wanted to fly.
Do you plan on staying in this area?
I plan on making this area one of my bases of operation, alongside Colton in Oregon and Nashville. I do a lot of traveling, as it’s part of the business, but I definitely am here for the long haul.
What are your attitudes towards business?
I’m generally pretty favorable to it. I don’t think that there is necessarily conflict between workers and businesses or between business and government or between businesses and customers. In order for businesses to truly succeed, there needs to be a secure rule of law that provides a fair playing field for businesses to operate in, and there needs to be reliable and productive labor, and the business needs to address the needs and wants and concerns of the population so that there are enough customers to operate. It’s not always easy for all of that to happen, but being profitable as well as being a good neighbor has always been my own interest in the businesses I have been involved in, and that’s certainly how I operate as a local entrepreneur myself.
Do you have any plans to increase your profile here?
I’m not really big on having a lot of personal attention, but I will do my best behind the scenes to make this area as good as it can be. I’m not going to be just focused on a small area alone, but about the larger area as a whole as well.
But you’re not going to have everything here named after you?
I hope not. That would be a disaster.
Isn’t it strange that someone as private as you are is so involved in community building?
Who says that lonely people don’t want community. Just because someone is shy and awkward like I am doesn’t mean there is no longing to build a good community, it just means that one doesn’t fancy oneself to be good at it.
How do you want people to remember you?
I would hope that people remember me as a friendly and quirky person who helped make the world, in at least some small way, a better place.
Do you ever want to build a performance venue here?
If people want it, sure. I’m sure we could work something out with some of the local farmers and do a festival during the time when the fields are fallow and have that serve as a way to benefit their bottom line and provide for a tourist boom to the area, but there would have to be a lot of stakeholders we would deal with in order to ensure that it worked out for everyone. I’m in no hurry to do that sort of thing on my own yet. It would have to be a collaborative effort for the whole community.
Are you going to run for mayor when the town is incorporated?
No, but they might write me in [laughter].
Because you’ve done so much?
Yes, or they might rename the town after me. But they’ll have to do it after I’m gone.
You don’t think that will be soon, do you?
I hope not. There’s a lot I’d like to do with my life. I don’t think it’s over yet.
Do you want to talk about politics?
Is there anywhere that people can get in touch with you if they want to ask more questions?
Sure, there are plenty of ways that people can get in touch with me if they want. I’m pretty active on social media, so you can send me a message on Twitter or Facebook, at least until they ban me for being too conservative. Other than that I’m an active blogger and I like to write about my travels and reading even if I can’t talk about any sensitive or confidential business there.
You don’t consider yourself impossible to get in touch with then?
No, certainly not impossible. I tend to keep myself pretty busy and hopefully productive, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for people to get to know me better if they want to.
Do you think that many people do want to get to know you better?
I don’t know. I don’t think I’m necessarily the most exciting person, but if you’re either looking for polite pleasantries or you have something serious to say, I don’t think I’m all that hard a person to find.
Do you have time for one more question?
One of our subscribers has just tweeted a question to us and we wanted to know if you would answer it.
With your interest in creating high density construction and also building a music studio, how do those two work together?
Acoustic engineering is a bit tricky, but the importance is in building a studio where the noise from the studio doesn’t bother neighbors and where the noise of the neighborhood doesn’t negatively impact the studio. For most the part, though, studios can be pretty compact spaces. You have a lot of people performing for a long time, and they need food and places to stay and that presents some opportunities to reduce expenses by having everything so close together so that people can stay in the studio and record as much music as they can without having to worry about outside distractions. I hope that answers the question to your satisfaction. And with that, I hope you have a good day there.