A Southwest Florida company that started out as a builder of classy, high-end communities in the ultra-expensive Naples market has moved up the coast and is morphing into a developer of more affordable properties for the people.

Not that the Bonita Bay Group of Bonita Springs is ignoring its roots. Far from it. The 1,500-employee company, which was started by a former retailer with no real estate experience, is still creating country club communities with million-dollar houses. But, as it has ventured north into the Fort Myers area and beyond, it has moved down the housing food chain.

“You could say we are continually reinventing ourselves,” says Gonzalo Romero, the company's vice president of planning and development. “We have started moving out of our comfort zone. And now we are in the process of evaluating a number of opportunities outside our core market. Our goal is to go beyond our five-county Southwest Florida market.”

Not entirely, though. The chameleon-like developer has amassed a land bank of 25,000 “entitled units” within its home area, so it has plenty to do right in its own backyard. But it is using the current slowdown to take somewhat of a timeout to reassess where it is going. “Today the market is obviously a little slow,” says Romero. “But that just gives us a chance to catch our breath and plan for the future.”

WIDE OPEN SPACES: Over half of Bonita Bay's 2,400 acres are devoted to open space, including nature preserves, golf courses, and biking and walking paths. Being able to step back and slow down is one of the benefits of being a private company, agrees regional general manager Gary Dumas. “What we do takes time,” he says. “You can't just shake a box and build what comes out.”

It was nearly 30 years ago when the company's founder, David Shakarian—who also created the General Nutrition Centers, now the GNC Corp., a Pittsburgh-based retailer of nutritional supplements—began assembling the land for his first venture into real estate. At the time, Bonita Springs, one town north of Naples, was nothing more than a dot on the map. Even when Bonita Bay Group opened its initial community, the 2,400-acre Bonita Bay, for sale in 1985, the town just north of Naples was a sleepy fishing village.

Today, David Lucas, Shakarian's Harvard-educated son-in-law, presides over the company. And Bonita Springs is home to three of its signature, high-end golf course communities. Besides Bonita Bay, which earned honors from the Urban Land Institute as its “Large-Scale Community of the Year” in 2000, there's also The Brooks and Mediterra.

Bonita's Bay Group's first foray northward came in 2001, with Verandah, a former 1,450-acre cattle farm east of Fort Myers on a 1.75-mile stretch of the Orange River. Although golf is still a main feature, the property represented “uncharted territory” for the company, according to Romero, who joined Bonita Bay after 16 years with Beazer Homes USA, where he was responsible for managing a 90-member residential design and production team at the corporate, regional, and divisional level.

“Verandah has a real different feel” from the company's previous projects, he says. Besides being a moderately priced master planned community, where 70 percent of the land will remain as open space, it is as a “river village” in the “Old Florida” mode. “It is a very slow, relaxed place where you can sit on your porch and kick up your feet.”

After Verandah, the company stepped back into its comfort zone with Shadow Wood preserve, another high-end project, this one 440-acres surrounded by the mangrove fringes of Estero Bay. But in 2003, it “reinvented itself once again,” according to Romero, when it took another step north with Sandoval in Cape Coral. The company's first nongolf community, the 524-acre property approved for up to 1,500 units “is definitely our most affordable.” It's a family-oriented place with, among other amenities, a community dog park, 20 lakes, a two-mile linear park and a pool with a towering water slide.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Cape Coral, FL.