THE NEXT BIG IDEAS
Perhaps the first “big idea” for the East County came from Mary Fran Carroll, the first president and CEO of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch. The Uihlein family, which owned thousands of acres east of I-75 between State Road 64 to the north and roughly Fruitville Road to the south, tasked Carroll with making its 30,000-acre agricultural operation profitable when it hired her in 1985.
With the expansion of Interstate 75, however, Carroll also developed a vision for what today is Lakewood Ranch.
SMR earned its first residential development approvals in 1990, but realized an economic slowdown was coming and decided to use the time to explore other master-planned developments.
In 1995, SMR offered its first homes for sale in Lakewood Ranch. Now, the community has more than 18,000 residents.
Other big ideas have emerged over the years, as well.
A businessman named Sal Diaz Verson, owner of DVA arena, announced plans to build an ice hockey arena in Lakewood Ranch, just north of State Road 70 and east of Lakewood Ranch Boulevard, in about 2002. Diaz Verson fell ill in 2005, and his company fell into financial trouble in 2006, leaving a partially built arena standing (right) until the property was foreclosed on. SMR demolished the structure, located off what is now Rangeland Parkway, in October 2009. The property is still zoned to be an “entertainment” hub, but no specific plans for the property have yet been announced.
In January 2009, officials from State College of Florida, SMR and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice announced a partnership meant to drive the local economy (above). The trio announced a vision to create a 72,000-square-foot facility to be known as DEAL, or the Design & Economic Acceleration Lab. The $18 million project would have been part of SCF, and was designed to be one-of-a-kind economic initiative meant to bolster the local economy and make it easier to do business in the area. The project, however, never came to fruition.
Next, SMR announced in August 2010 that plans for Premier Sports Campus were a “go.” In less than three years, the facility, located adjacent to the Lakewood Ranch Post Office, has become home to multiple youth leagues and has hosted soccer and lacrosse tournaments, including the Nike Cup Labor Day Showcase soccer tournament, which drew 20,000 people to the area.
In March 2014, SMR plans to host the Winterfest Music Festival, a two-day music festival, at Premier. The event will feature national and local talent, including Jeff Cook, founder of the country music group Alabama, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Marty Balin, classic-rock artist Rick Derringer and the Billy Rice Band, among others. SMR officials say if the event is successful, it could be a stepping stone for creating a more permanent entertainment venue in Lakewood Ranch.
OVER-THE-RIVER ROADWAYS: TARA BRIDGE; FORT HAMER BRIDGE
East County residents long debated the fate of the Tara Bridge, planned to connect Tara Boulevard to Honore Avenue.
The project has been in the county’s plans for decades, but, simply put, officials removed it from plans, placed it back on the plans and took the last bit of property for it by eminent domain June 19, 2012. The Manatee County Board of County Commissioners voted to take the original 3.86-acre parcel by eminent domain in June 2009.
Plans for the Fort Hamer Bridge also have been controversial and a long time coming. Discussions and plans for the project began more than 12 years ago. Approvals needed from the U.S. Coast Guard held up the project multiple times, as did objections from nearby residents, who thought an alternative location may better serve residents. This year, however, the Coast Guard announced a bridge connecting Upper Manatee River Road to Fort Hamer Road to the north would be the best north-south alternative over the river, east of I-75.
The project has been in the county’s plans since 1968.
TO BE, OR NOT TO BE… THAT, IS THE QUESTION
Heated discussions of whether Lakewood Ranch should become its own city seriously began in mid-2009, after members of the Lakewood Ranch Civic Action Forum presented their vision for Lakewood Ranch’s governing body and a draft of a city charter during a forum June 15.
At that time, they were still awaiting the results of a feasibility study, which later — around January 2010 — deemed incorporation was financially feasible for the area.
The idea, however, did not gain enough momentum to become reality. Friends of Lakewood Ranch, a group that questioned the results of the feasibility study and objected to incorporation at that time, led efforts to derail a public vote on the issue, while members of the Civic Action Forum worked to educate the public about their findings.
The East County Observer hosted a debate on the issue May 9, 2011, and ran a series of stories to help educate readers about both the pros and cons of incorporation.
Ultimately, the idea failed in a straw poll, with 56% of respondents voting against incorporation. The results put an end to the debate, at least for a time.
“It is clear that the majority of voters participating in the straw poll believe that the time is not right for incorporation,” Lakewood Ranch Civic Action Forum Incorporation Study Group member Keith Davey said. “While we are disappointed in the results of the poll, we are at the same time proud that we were able to get a very important discussion started, which engaged thousands of residents in the process. As promised, we are putting our efforts ‘on the shelf’ at this time.”
Although there’s no talk of incorporation emerging yet, Lakewood Ranch Town Hall Executive Director Eva Rey says the topic is hot with individuals attending Town Hall’s new resident orientation meetings.
“As a part of our monthly resident orientation sessions, we display the overall Lakewood Ranch map and discuss the relationship between Phase I, which is under the jurisdiction of Town Hall, and the Stewardship District,” Rey said. “The questions that inevitably follow relate to what will happen to unify the entire community in the future.”
THEN AND NOW
In 1998, Jonathan Bruce served as the East County’s Manatee County commissioner, in the seat now occupied by District 5 Commissioner Vanessa Baugh. Other commissioners at the time included Amy Stein, Joe McClash, Lari Ann Harris, Stan Stephens, Pat Glass and Gwendolyn Brown.
HISTORY OF GROWTH
1998 — Lakewood Ranch High School opens.
1999 — Improvements to Interstate 75 in the Manatee/Sarasota area are completed.
2000 — Manatee County approves plans for communities such as Heritage Harbour, Lakeridge Falls and Twin Rivers.
2000 — Construction begins on GreyHawk Landing off State Road 64.
2000 — Construction begins on Creekwood Crossing on State Road 70.
2000 — County completes land purchases for the extension of Lockwood Ridge Road.
2001 — Construction begins on Heritage Harbour.
2002 — Lakewood Ranch’s Greenbrook community opens.
2003 — Freedom and McNeal elementary schools open.
2004 — Developers break ground on Lakewood Ranch Main Street. The Sarasota Film Society announces it would build a movie theater there.
2004 — Lakewood Ranch Medical Center opens.
2004 — Nolan Middle School opens.
2004 — LECOM Bradenton opens.
2005 — Developers break ground on Lakewood Ranch’s hockey arena.
2005 — Braden River High and Willis Elementary schools open.
2006 — Lakewood Ranch Main Street opens.
2006 — Super Target opens as the first large retailer in Benderson Development’s University Town Center.
2007 — San Marco Plaza opens.
2007 — Developers break ground on Creekwood East.
2007 — Gullett Elementary School opens.
2007 — Lakewood Walk opens.
2008 — Developer Pat Neal breaks ground for Central Park in Lakewood Ranch.
2008 — Construction begins at River Club Park of Commerce site.
2008 — Discussions for the incorporation of Lakewood Ranch lead to the beginning of a feasibility study by Florida economist Hank Fishkind. The study will determine whether Lakewood Ranch could thrive as its own city.
2009 — County denies cell tower in River Club.
2010 — Central Park opens.
2011 — Premier Sports Campus opens.
2011 — Straw vote to proceed with incorporation fails.
2012 — Fairfield and Esplanade communities open.
2012 — Construction begins on Mall at University Town Center.
2013 — Manatee Technical Institute opens S.R. 70 campus.
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