Monday, June 21, 2021

Jason Vuic's "The Swamp Peddlers"

Jason Vuic is a writer and historian and author of several books, including The Swamp Peddlers: How Lot Sellers, Land Scammers, and Retirees Built Modern Florida and Transformed the American Dream (2021); The Yucks! Two Years in Tampa with the Losingest Team in NFL History (2016); and The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History (2010).

Vuic applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Swamp Peddlers and reported the following:
On page 99 of The Swamp Peddlers, we come to Marco Island, Florida, which, as late as the early-1960s, was a mostly uninhabited, 10,000-acre stretch of pristine mangrove forests, saltwater marshes, and lagoons, and one of the last untouched parcels of coastal wilderness in Florida. It belonged, however, to the wealthy Collier family, whose patriarch Baron Gift Collier had owned over 1.3 million acres of Florida land and whose son, Baron Jr., wished to develop it.

To do so, the younger Collier turned to Miami’s famed Mackle Brothers—Elliott, Robert, and Frank—the builders of Port St. Lucie, Port Charlotte, and Key Biscayne, among others, whose sprawling Deltona Corporation had opened the community of Deltona, near Orlando, in 1962.

The Mackles were adept at selling lots on the installment plan. For $10 down and $10 a month, retiring northerners could buy a piece of the Florida dream, a graded homesite that’d be waiting for them when they were ready to build. But Marco was a bit pricier than that. It would have over 8,000 waterfront lots on more than 90 miles of canals, a huge undertaking requiring billions of pounds of fill dirt, taken from the bottom of two bays and the floor of a river, which workers would scoop up using excavators pulling buckets or suck to the surface using pumps. It was a process called dredge and fill, which, though incredibly destructive environmentally, allowed the Mackles to build hundreds of finger-like peninsulas on Marco with homes that northerners craved. They had driveways in the front and boat docks and seawalls at the back.

Here we see the opening of Marco in 1965:
While Marco was a ritzier development than, say, Deltona, its economic model was the same: big ad budgets, nationwide sales dinners, bus tours, plane tours, celebrity “spokespitches,” and sales—installment sales—of yet-to-be dredged and yet to be filled lots, not just in the Marco River area, which had been permitted, but in all five areas at once. They called it, like they did at Deltona, “coordinated growth,” with cash sales in the first area, three years of payments in the second area, and so on. But whereas the cheapest homesites in Deltona were $995, with payments of $15 a month, the cheapest in Marco were $2,495 at $30 a month. And those were inland sites. The more numerous canal-front sites were even steeper: a minimum $5,495 at $65 a month, with several high-end ocean-front sites listed for $19,000.

Marco “isn’t a low-cost retirement community for the factory foreman or the policeman,” wrote one northern newspaper. “It’s aimed at the family of the professional man or the executive who decides to retire in style, but quietly. It’s also aimed at the folks with money who want ‘a place in Florida’ to come to during the winter.” With an air exclusivity, but with installment plans and ad campaigns geared to the upper-middle-class masses, Marco attracted buyers in droves: 25,000 people toured the island on opening day.

They were directed to MIDC’s welcome center by twelve Collier County sheriff’s deputies, then herded onto tour buses (and even a boat) for carefully-staged walk-throughs at each of the development’s model homes, where the atmosphere, exclaimed one agent, was “electric.” Within six weeks, people had purchased over a thousand homesites, and by August 1966, just 18 months into the project, MIDC had sold $3.5 million in homes and apartments and $22 million in land. It had built, or was in the process of building, 125 homes, a grocery store, a hardware store, a post office, a service station, a 100-room hotel, a 48-unit condominium, a 78-unit apartment complex, a country club with an 18-hole, professional-grade golf course, a yacht club, 2 restaurants, 6 miles of seawalls, 20 miles of utility mains, and 18 miles of roads. “In the brief [period] since Marco Island opened,” said Frank Mackle, “we’ve made tremendous strides. In all respects, we’re running well ahead of schedule…. [Things are] taking shape so fast, it’s like looking at tomorrow.”
The passage above, from page 99 of The Swamp Peddlers, describes the opening of Marco in 1965, and I think encapsulates what the book is about: dredge and fill; installment land sales; high pressure sales tactics; and Madison Avenue advertising. This is how developers in the ‘60s sold the Florida dream.
Visit Jason Vuic's website.

The Page 99 Test: The Yucks.

--Marshal Zeringue