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Don Porter, owner of Wiregrass Ranch, dies at 73

WESLEY CHAPEL — Don Porter, who helped transform thousands of acres of ranch land into the economic engine of Pasco County, died today. He was 73.

The oldest of three brothers, Porter became the patriarch of the family that owned the sprawling 5,000-acre Wiregrass Ranch. The property is now home to one of the Tampa Bay region’s most popular shopping malls, a state-of-the-art hospital, a high school and the namesake Porter Campus of Pasco-Hernando State College.

Keith Appenzeller, president of King Engineering, worked closely with the Porter family to bring their vision to reality.

“The first time I talked to Don about what he wanted to do, I remember we discussed over lunch a couple of ideas and development concepts,” Appenzeller said. “As we walked out to the parking lot, he went to his car and he opened the trunk, and there was a whole box full of plans and sketches. So he takes one out and unrolls it, and it was very similar to what we had discussed.”

Pasco County Commissioner Ted Schrader said the Porters resisted the temptation to sell out to developers to make a quick dollar. “He wanted Wiregrass Ranch to be a place we can all be proud of,” he said. “It’s quite a success story.”

County Administrator Michele Baker said above all, Porter was a gentleman. “It’s a true loss to the community.”

House Speaker Will Weatherford called Porter “a giant of a man” who left a permanent imprint on the region. “Wherever Pasco is going to go in the next decade, Wiregrass Ranch is in large part going to take it there,” Weatherford said. “I lived in Wesley Chapel before we had the mall. The mall has created a sense of community for this part of the county and for Wesley Chapel. He wanted it to be a place where families could go – where you’d run into neighbors and friends. It’s been a game changer.”

In 2011 financial services giant Raymond James announced it would locate a million-square-foot corporate campus at Wiregrass. Raymond James spokesman Steve Hollister said the company is still committed to the project, which is still in the permitting stages.

Commissioner Pat Mulieri called Porter a “great steward of the land.” His death came a shock to friends who didn’t realize he was ill.

“He used to talk about the land he loved and the ghosts who live there now,” she said. “I feel terrible. I didn’t know he was in hospice. I wish I had the time to tell him what a difference he made.”

Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel opened its $150 million facility at Wiregrass in 2012. A wellness center opened a few months later.

“Don understood that a great community needs excellent health care and has been supportive of our hospital every step of the way,” spokeswoman Tracy Clouser said. “Don believed in our mission and has been a strong advocate of our approach to providing high quality, compassionate care.”

The family’s generosity has a lasting legacy on the Tampa Bay area. In 2004, the family donated nearly $3 million to fund collaborative research at USF’s College of Medicine and the Johnnie B. Byrd Sr. Alzheimer’s Center and Research Institute at USF.

Porter’s mother, Martha, battled Alzheimer’s for the last 20 years of her life. Family friends said Don Porter began showing signs of dementia recently. The family checked him into a hospital for tests, and his health quickly deteriorated.

The family transferred him to a hospice center last week.

“It’s sad, and it’s too soon,” Schrader said.

The USF donation was just one example of Porter’s philanthropy. In 2013, the family donated 120 acres of prime real estate at Wiregrass Ranch to Pasco County for a future sports complex or park. The land, valued at $8.7 million, is slated to be home to a 19-field youth baseball/softball complex and possible Major League Baseball spring training site.

Porter’s true passion for higher education was realized earlier this year, when Pasco Hernando State College dedicated its new Porter Campus at Wiregrass Ranch. The Porters donated 60 acres to the college.

“Don was the very first person I met on my first day on the job,” PHSC President Katherine Johnson said. “We clicked immediately. I found him to be engaging, warm and passionate about education. He had so many stories about the one-room schoolhouse on the property. His father and grandfather were educated there, so were he and his brothers. He remembered the impact of education. When we dedicated the campus, it was like they were coming full circle.”

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. on July 12 at the PHSC Porter Campus in the college’s conference center.

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