In America, we have painted a picture of family life in which loved ones make long treks from all corners of the country to come together for the holidays.
It’s a recurring theme in movies and greeting card commercials that reduce viewers to a puddle of tears.
Particularly here in Florida, home-grown residents often seem rarer than newcomers, whose career moves and the search for sunnier skies often put large distances between family members and bring folks together from across the country and world. Yet a growing number of families have found the Westchase area’s beauty and sense of community ultimately convinces visiting relatives to set down new roots in our neck of the woods.
The Move to Greener Pastures
Kristen Bardes, a native of Long Island, N.Y., was living in Carrollwood when her parents first moved to West Park Village eight years ago. When her daughter Scout came along, Bardes became a regular in Westchase. “When Scout was an infant, we would visit my parents here, and I saw how friendly the neighborhood was,” she said. “I loved the green space, the playgrounds, the pool, the shops, and just the welcoming atmosphere. That’s when I decided that West Park Village was the right place for Scout and me.”
Bardes and Scout, now 3, have now lived in West Park Village just shy of three years. “It has been wonderful, enjoying the neighborly feeling and being close to my parents (Scout’s grandparents).”
Bardes added that her sister, her sister’s husband and their 8-year-old son live just four miles away. For Bardes, living near her family means tons of quality time. “My mom watches Scout several times a week, and we also have full family get-togethers once a week or so,” she said.
While Bardes views that as a blessing all the time, it was even more important to her over the past year and a half. “I feel very lucky that my daughter and I live so close to our family. Time with my family during ‘normal’ times is special, but especially during the pandemic it has meant emotional and social wellness for us.”
In Search of Sunshine
Shanna and Ben Detweiler hail from the North, but the Sunshine State had been calling their names for quite some time. “My husband and I are originally from Ohio and Minnesota, and we never particularly liked cold weather,” Shanna explained. “A year after we met, we vacationed on Anna Maria Island and just fell in love with the general area. We pledged to someday move down South when other things aligned (mostly jobs, and he had just bought a house in Philly.)”
Shanna and Ben met in Philadelphia and lived in Fishtown for 10 years. “It was great when we were young and single, but having children made our opinions of city life do a 180,” Shanna said.
The Detweilers are parents to daughters Izzy, 3, and Zoey, 1. “Having two small children in the middle of a large city is not for the faint of heart,” Shanna said. “Everything was difficult—from finding parking, to good schools, to even getting to the grocery store. We wanted a simpler life and to raise them in a suburban setting where we could spend more time outdoors rather than being stuck inside for four months due to cold weather.”
They knew they wanted to be somewhere in Florida—either on the Gulf or Atlantic side, since they wanted to be somewhere that was accessible to multiple beaches. They realized the cost of living was a little higher on the Atlantic side, and so they narrowed their search to the Gulf Coast. “I have extended family all over Florida (Port St. Lucie, Ocala) and his parents wanted to retire from Minnesota to the Villages, so we looked for a good suburb around a metro area that was ranked highly as a great place to raise a family,” Shanna explained.
They had visited both St. Petersburg and Wesley Chapel, but it was Westchase that checked all the boxes. Finally, they were able to secure work-from-home opportunities and they knew it was the perfect chance to make the move to a warmer climate. The problem was that perfect timing just happened to be at the onset of a global pandemic. “We had been planning the move for a few years, and had plane tickets booked for mid-April, 2020, but when everything shut down, we made the decision to accelerate the move,” Shanna explained. “We packed up two cars with everything we could fit and hightailed it down here.”
Here’s the catch: They hadn’t actually seen the Westchase area in person. “We just scoured the web for details in hopes it was all it was cracked up to be,” Shanna explained. “Needless to say, we were super pleased once we actually got to visit in person.”
After a few months of waiting for their house to sell in Philadelphia, the family was able to find the perfect home in Mandolin Reserve last August. They then got to work convincing Shanna’s mom and her long-time boyfriend to make the move from Philly as well. What did it take to convince them? “This one is easy—her granddaughters,” Shanna said. “Maybe a fraction of it was being closer to me—ha!”
Shanna’s mom purchased a home in nearby Windsor Place, and the two see each other about three times a week. “It’s amazing. We’ve always been close, but now it’s nice to be a part of the same neighborhood for the first time in 15 years,” Shanna said. “It’s really only been a few months since she moved so close (she was in Carrollwood for a year before buying the place at Windsor), so we haven’t had a ton of time to reap the benefits, but it’s so nice to be able to keep in touch so often. Having your family close by as a support system is wonderful, especially when you have young children. You know what they say…it takes a village!”
Making a move in the midst of a pandemic, sight unseen is a risky move, but the Detweilers have no regrets. “We couldn’t be happier with our choice to uproot our whole family and live in such a great community!”
Keeping the Family Together
The path to Westchase was winding for Dina and Philip Marcus. “I’m originally from Connecticut and Massachusetts; Philip is from Texas and Illinois—but we met when we were both living in Seattle!” Dina explained. “We moved to Westchase 17 years ago this July from Virginia. Philip worked for Bank of America in Seattle and Virginia and that job brought us here, too.”
Recommendations from a family friend who once lived in Westchase, as well as advice from their Realtor, helped lead them to their home in Greenpointe—the perfect spot to raise their two young daughters. Dina’s mom moved to The Bridges just a few months later. “She wanted to be close to at least one of her children and grandchildren. My sister is in New Jersey and my brother is in California,” Dina said.
Dina’s grandmother and aunt moved to Westchase four years later. “We also have a few other close relatives nearby in Oldsmar and Palm Harbor, for a total of 11, counting all the college and post-college kids. This includes my grandmother’s two daughters, two of her grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren,” Dina said.
With so many family members nearby, it begs the question how often they get together. “We don’t see each other all the time, sometimes weekly, sometimes not. But we always get together for birthdays and holidays and all the kids’ school events when they were still here,” Dina said. “My mom and I love to share books, so we might see each other for an exchange! If you asked my mom, she would say that she would love to see us more often!”
“Having family right down the street is especially appreciated during the good times and the bad times,” Dina added. During the pandemic, she was able to check in with her mom and grandmother on a regular basis. “I actually saw them several times a week, as I dropped off groceries and such for them,” Dina said. “Of course, that was a wave from the driveway or garage!”
And now that daughters Emily and Julie are young adults, Dina is grateful they were surrounded by so much family. “I have been fortunate to always live near to my mom since having children. It was wonderful for her to have such a special bond with my girls,” she said. “My children are so fortunate to have grown up with their grandmother and great-grandmother five minutes away. They definitely always had a big cheering section at every band concert and award ceremony! We will all gather to celebrate my grandmother’s 102nd birthday in August.”
A Return to Childhood Stomping Grounds
When Jessica Siddle was growing up, she knew she’d want to return to Westchase to raise her family. Her husband Jeff felt the same way…they just didn’t know each other at the time.
Jessica’s parents, Doreen and Richie Ruggerio, moved from New York to Tampa in 1988. Seven years later, they were helping a loved one relocate to Tampa when they discovered the newly established neighborhood of Westchase located just a few miles from where they were living…and they fell in love. “We weren’t looking to move at the time,” Doreen said. But the community was calling their names and so they moved into one of the final homes being built in Woodbay. The year was 1995 and Jessica was in second grade at the time. As a new neighborhood, the streets of Woodbay were filled with young families. “We would put cones out by the mailbox to slow the cars down so the kids could play,” Doreen recalled. Jessica remembers hanging out at the Westchase Swim and Tennis Center on Countryway Boulevard (“the place to be!”) and learning tennis through the Team Thomas Tennis Program. There were neighborhood get togethers at the Swim and Tennis Center for Halloween, Christmas and Easter. “It was a very close-knit community,” Doreen said.
Jessica went to Lowry (Westchase Elementary was yet to be built), Davidsen and Alonso. Meanwhile, Jeff’s childhood paralleled hers; he was just one year older. His parents were original owners in Radcliffe. He, too, swam at the community’s pool and learned tennis through the Team Thomas program. In high school, Jessica was a cheerleader; Jeff was on the football team. While their paths must have crossed, they did not officially meet until they were home from college and had a chance meeting through mutual friends.
When the pair married and started their family, they both knew they wanted to give their children the same childhood they experienced in Westchase. “I always knew I wanted to live in this amazing community I grew up in,” Jessica said.
While Jeff’s parents had moved on, Jessica’s parents still live in their Woodbay home, which made a move back to Westchase even more appealing. The couple initially moved to The Eagles with a goal to save enough money to purchase in Westchase. In September of 2020, they made the move to The Greens with their three children, ages 3, 4 and 6. “It’s come full circle,” Jessica said.
Jessica noted that it is great to be so close to her parents, especially with three little ones, and that they see each other a couple of times a week. “We have dinner every Sunday,” she added.
As for Doreen, she couldn’t be happier. “It doesn’t get any better than this, especially with all that we went through last year,” Doreen said. “We were able to be there for each other. It was amazing. We are just so blessed.”
By Karen Ring, Assistant Editor; Hardcopy Cover Photos by James Broome Photography