By Kathy Danforth / Published June 2016
River Dance Condominium Association of Bradenton has been chosen as the 2016 Condominium Association of the Year in the Communities of Excellence contest. With construction completed in 2007, this luxury high-rise overcame initial struggles—earning them the “Comeback Kid” award this year—and has progressed to giving back to their town, securing them the Civic Volunteerism and Advocacy award for smaller communities.
The eight-story condominium has a four-story attached garage whose roof serves as an athletic deck, providing a heated pool and hot tub, sun deck, putting green, basketball court, running track, and tennis and pickleball courts. The association also has a 25-seat movie theater, fitness center, social room with a billiards table, conference room, business center, and two guest suites. “We are situated in what used to be Rossi Park in downtown Bradenton,” says Jeannette Graham, manager of River Dance for more than three years. “Each of the proposed units was sold for $500,000 and up before the developer even broke ground in 2005. Then the great, sad real estate market crash happened. Fifty-four of the buyers backed out, even if they lost $30,000, because they knew property values were plummeting.”
Graham shares, “When the building opened, only three of the 115 units in the building were occupied by owners.” With financial difficulties that culminated in bankruptcy, the developer left the project unfinished, leading to additional problems. “The building and athletic deck were not waterproofed, security systems were not installed, and many of the units and common elements were not finished,” according to Graham. “People were breaking in and camping in stairwells, and vandals were breaking lights and terrorizing residents. The developer had a project manager living in the building, and the owners had to get a restraining order against him because of his actions. It was very tough.”
When the association was placed under receivership, the owners were then empowered to begin running the property, raise maintenance fees, and make improvements. “Units were rented to tenants by the receiver, so maintenance fees started coming in which prov-ided funds to fix or finish the units so they could be sold,” explains Graham. “They started selling off the remaining units in 2010, and the last was sold by mid-2012.”
Though this was the route to recovery, Graham recalls, “There was quite a bit of friction between the original owners and the new renters or people who may have only paid $100,000 for their unit. The original owners remembered the terrible times they had been through, and they wanted everything they were promised but didn’t get because the developer went bankrupt. That has been completely resolved, and the neighbors are so pleasant with each other now. Having someone in the units to pay maintenance fees really helped turn the situation around, and eventually the original owners became grateful for that.”
Meanwhile, the owners proceeded with needed repairs and filed a construction defect lawsuit. “We reached a mediation settlement in 2014 that covered the deficiencies that were already fixed, plus it allowed us to conduct a proper reserve study, fully fund reserves, and bring maintenance fees down,” Graham reports.
The staff and management have played a major role in the successful turnaround of the community. “The maintenance manager and housekeeper, a husband and wife team, have been here eight years, and they have been really good to the residents,” observes Graham. “There were a couple of times when they didn’t get paychecks, but they stayed and were reimbursed. Our maintenance man built cabinets and installed appliances to complete the social room.”
Before Graham arrived, no manager had been with the property longer than a year. As well as bringing stability, she has promoted policies to improve the association. Background and credit checks have been added for tenants and owners, tours of the property are conducted, and communication has been enhanced with newsletters, e-mails, an activity calendar, and an open-door policy. Impartial enforcement of regulations has also contributed to a resolution of tension in the community.
Other positive steps include increasing the board size from three members to five and creating two-year staggered terms. “We added a suggestion box for residents to submit ideas,” Graham relates. “The owners speak up because I have an open door and they feel free to comment, but renters or college students may have very good suggestions but prefer anonymity. Some requests will not happen—they may be a fine idea but cost too much—but some suggestions were useful and have been implemented.
“Social events have been absolutely imperative to making the building feel like a community instead of a battleground,” says Graham. “The Social Committee created a monthly wine and cheese gathering, and one of the suggestions has been to make it weekly! We have about 30–80 people attend, and some residents who have an additional home schedule their visits here to catch that event. A book club, weekly movie theater night, a weekly card game night, and a monthly dinner out at a local restaurant were all started. The Social Committee also organizes parties for special events, including the Super Bowl, Memorial Day, Christmas holiday, and Fourth of July, with the fireworks right outside our building. We have the best view because we’re directly on Riverwalk.” The Social Committee also hosts an annual community fundraising garage sale, which allows residents to come together for a common cause as well as get rid of treasures they no longer need or want.
The residents engage in the benefits and service opportunities of their location. “The Manatee Art Center is our neighbor, and when people are connected to downtown, they are often involved in the arts,” Graham observes. The residents volunteered more than 2,000 hours at the Art Center and more than 3,000 hours at the Performing Arts Center in 2015. “Our prior board president was president of the Chamber of Commerce, so he helped residents become gung-ho about the community. Our board secretary serves on the board of Realize Bradenton, where more than 40 of our
residents volunteer. We have a lot of recent retirees who want to find a way to help locally. But, our working residents volunteer their time, also.”
Graham notes, “Our volunteers have a giving heart, and they usually don’t volunteer at just one place. They meet like-minded people, and the next thing you know, they’re volunteering at four places because of the people they meet while volunteering.” In 2015 residents served more than 60 organizations in the area. “They will let the other residents know if events are coming up and volunteers are needed, usually by posting on the corkboard in the mailroom or elevator or when visiting at social events,” says Graham.
“What amazes me is the sense of community we have now in a building that is eight-years old and has been through so much,” Graham comments. “We’re getting quite a bit of recognition because the residents are very active in the community, and their friends visit and see what an amazing building we have. Prices went up 25 percent in the last year, and units rent in a couple of days.” While it has taken strong leadership, much effort, money, and patience, River Dance is reaping the benefits of their work and is now able to direct their attention to
sharing with others.
The Timber Pines Community Association of Spring Hill has been named the 2016 Homeowners Association of the Year in the Communities of Excellence contest. This 55+ community of 3,452 homes won the Communications and Community award and Trendsetter award in this year’s competition.
Timber Pines, founded in 1982, has used a number of means of communication and has continued to add more. “I don’t think we ever eliminate a way of communicating,” says Residential Services Manager Patti Yost. “We just keep adding methods as technology becomes available, because of the diverse nature of the population.”
The community’s first website was in place when Paul Smith, IT Manager, came to work at the association 10 years ago. “The current site for members was launched around 2008, and we have seen use steadily increase over the years,” he comments. “During the first quarter in 2016, there were 1,113,915 page hits, with 775,423 of those by members. The online tee time system for our golf center had 192,145 page hits, and a Web cam over the driving/putting green, which can be viewed by members only, was viewed 2,060 time. A video tour promotion of the property was viewed 6,863 times. Residents use the site for watching board and workshop meetings; viewing minutes, association documents and forms; and accessing other information.”
For major projects, a blog is added to the website. “During the renovation of our championship golf course, we had an ongoing description of the project with photos,” explains Smith. “That has resolved a lot of questions and rumors because the information is available to the entire membership. Before that, we had a multi-million-dollar irrigation system renovation with a blog and photos. This enables us to be open and transparent with residents, so they know what’s going on. We use any way we can to get the information out.”
The community is using Facebook as a marketing and communications tool, with approximately 1,300 page “likes.” “We share photos of amenities, wildlife, social events, and flyers for upcoming events, for example.” Smith relates. “The most recent posting reached 2,535 people. Residents enjoy the photos, and they may ask questions that we can help answer.” Smith notes, “We are trying to use Instagram as another way to promote the community, and I have 63 followers so far. I’m not sure yet if it will be a good tool, but we’re giving it a whirl.”
Another means of reaching residents, the CodeRed Emergency Notification system, was installed two years ago for general notifications and emergencies. In addition, automated severe weather alerts based on location was implemented last year. “Residents can receive messages by home phone, e-mail, text, TTY, or cell phone,” says Smith. “We started with all public home phone listings, and residents could then add other contact methods. We will send notice of road closures, general information such as where and when to pick up ballot packages, and any urgent message.”
Smith shares, “Just recently, when the electric company hit a water main, we used CodeRed to alert our residents to the situation and to reroute traffic safely. Thankfully, we have not yet had to use it for a Silver Alert, but if we need to, we have the system in place.”
Timber Pines has recently added Capsure, a visitor management system that enables residents to register guests online, by phone, or with a form. “Residents can go online to schedule access for family, visitors, or vendors. This enables the security officer at any of the three entrances to quickly verify access and print a visitor pass,” states Smith. “This system integrates with our main member data base and syncs nightly.
“Sixty to 70 percent of the residents access the system online,” says Yost. “About 25 percent of our residents are without computers, but we will help them set up their access on the computers in the library.”
One of the many tools used to connect with residents is the Friday Flash—a two-page weekly document containing pertinent information. “The Friday Flash goes out by e-mail and is also available in hard copy and on the website,” notes Smith. “It contains association business and information from department heads. It is paired with the resident-generated Timber Times, which provides club news. This information is also broadcast on the in-house television channel and is published in the monthly newsletter.”
Timber Pines has stepped out of the routine with their use of a drone. For a price of approximately $2,000, the community enjoys access to an overview of the property when needed. “We have used it for roof inspections on larger buildings with steep roofs, where we were able to avoid the danger of workers on the roof,” shares Smith. “When an adjacent landowner was planning construction of a large storage building, we were able to provide an aerial photograph of the affected perimeter with a mockup to show residents the potential view, which led to a successful block of the construction. For a lake with sides collapsing, we were able to give the engineers and grounds people views from different angles to assist in their planning. In another instance, aerial views showed the turf damage caused by golf carts, so the evidence led to a change in golf cart rules,” explains Smith.
“The control pad, similar to a remote control for a toy car, is connected to an iPhone, and we can then see what the camera sees and take still shots or video. Our drone is registered with the FAA, and we always refer to the FAA guidelines for drone use, as they are constantly changing.” Smith reports.
“The Friday Flash and the website may be used to let people know when we will be using the drone,” notes Smith. “Residents are excited for the potential usefulness in an emergency. If someone is missing or lost in the nature area, we have that to aid in looking for them.”
Timber Pines’ Volunteer Ambassador Program is a unique addition to their hospitality. Yost explains, “We have approximately 45 residents involved in showing visitors around the community, with a team captain for each day of the week. Any guest who comes to the gate will receive a brochure, a list of preferred realtors, and the contact information for the day’s team captain. They can call to arrange a personal tour of our community and amenities, which may be general or based on the guest’s interests. Our survey of new homeowners shows that the majority of residents who purchase in Timber Pines have taken the tour and have been very impressed with the community…leading to their purchase.”
The Timber Pines association is willing to try whatever might improve their residents’ experience. Their innovation and communication are worthy of congratulations and imitation!
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