McCall Ranch still looking for a buyer

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Local leaders, conservation groups, and those selling the McCall Ranch property are scratching their heads after nearly six-thousand acres in North Port failed to sell at auction Thursday. Those working to make the sale say there's still hope a deal can be struck.

The non-sale has left North Port Mayor Jim Blucher is "a little shocked," as the city has had a close eye on the property since annexing it during last decade's building boom. Blucher says he's looking forward to commercial development along the stretch near I-75.

"I was hoping it sold and to a private entity. I would really like to see it stay in private hands. ... Develop it and preserve what is necessary," he says.

Preserving at least some of it was the goal of conservationists on hand. Thousands of acres of other set aside lands are nearby.

"Anytime you have uncertainty you are always concerned," says Christine Johnson of the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast. "We have done all we can to put the right buyers there."

Johnson points out that much of the city's water supply runs through the property ("60% to 70% of the property is wetlands," she says), and there is some concern about how much can actually be built there.

Despite a handful of bidders, the offers never made it to the $14 million minimum.

"We are very close. It is a beautiful piece of property," says William Bone of the National Auction Group. Bone says the expectations of bids coming in at $30-plus million may have kept away some potential bidders.

"Maybe the state would step in and help them. The nature conservancy could put up so much money. Forever Florida would step in. That didn't happen but this could be a bargain price," he says.

Blucher says that the buyer will have to be someone who wants to either preserve the land or develop it, seeing as land dedicated to agricultural use is going for much less these days.

"I expect it to be sold. I wish I had a clue who it was going to be," Blucher says. "The auction company says they've heard from a half a dozen entities still interested in the property. We should know more within a week."