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East County Monday, Dec. 31, 2018 11 months ago

Big silver celebration in Lakewood Ranch

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Rex Jensen talks about 25 years of progress in Lakewood Ranch before Music on Main party.
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

The day was Feb. 25, 1994 and Rex Jensen was standing on land soon to be developed into Lakewood Ranch's Summerfield community.

Jensen was the vice president of real estate for Schroeder-Manatee Ranch at the time, and while excited about the scope of the enormous Lakewood Ranch project, he knew not many people outside of SMR shared that feeling.

"What we did then was counter-intuitive," Jensen said last week while sharing memories going into Lakewood Ranch's 25th anniversary year. "In 1994-95, the market was retirement driven. We weren't doing a retirement community. We did Summerfield where the houses were priced from $89,000 to $129,000. 

"And nobody (outside of SMR) believed in the property, we had no large developer. We did it ourselves. That was daunting. That was scary."

Twenty-five years later, Lakewood Ranch is the second-best-selling community in the U.S., as crowned by the real estate consulting firms of RCLCO and John Burns Real Estate, which perform the study on a nationwide basis. Through Nov. 30, Lakewood Ranch sold a record 1,394 homes in 2018, 184 more than the previous year with a month still to go.

To celebrate the community's enormous success and silver anniversary, the usual Music on Main — Friday, Jan. 4 at Main Street at Lakewood Ranch — is expanding. Besides the usual live music, milestones exhibits will be set up as well as a resident photo gallery.

Jensen, who continues to be entrenched in the expansion of Lakewood Ranch into Sarasota County with Waterside, along with building roads to facilitate the expansion east of Lorraine Road, admitted he doesn't spend a lot of time looking back. 

"I was brought here to build, so I've always been focused toward the future," said Jensen, who became SMR's president in 2002 and its CEO in 2005. "It's never been about where we have been, but where we are headed. I'm still building. It's not mission accomplished. Our 25th year is just part of the process."

Even in the early days, Jensen said he knew Lakewood Ranch could be special.

"When I first interviewed for the job, initially I said I was not interested," Jensen said. "I had my own company (a real estate consulting company in Tampa). But when I found out the scale of the project, I changed my mind. It was the magnitude of the challenge."

The Uihlein family purchased 48 square miles of land in 1922 to pursue timber and ranching. That land eventually became the home of the 31,000-acre Lakewood Ranch development.

Jensen said the direction for Lakewood Ranch was established in the late 1970s to early 1980s. SMR had spent approximately a half million dollars to study the overall property and its inventory. The SMR board had come up with an alternative master plan to what had been working. 

If the property was to host future neighborhoods, Jensen said some organizing principles drove any version of the plan due to wetlands and natural systems that couldn't move, along with defined areas where roads needed to be built.

When Jensen spoke at an area seminar in 1984, he knew Sarasota and Manatee counties were going to experience the most explosive growth in Florida.

But after breaking ground in 1994, builders weren't rushing to be part of the growth.

"There was still a mindset ... that's way out east," Jensen said of Lakewood Ranch. "Even though it isn't. It's in the middle of the (expletive) county."

The new community forged forward, and now attracts national attention as a premier place to live.

"Are some of the roads a little different? Are some of the uses a little different?" Jensen asked Rhetorically. "Yeah. But this absolutely is what I envisioned," Jensen said.

There were bumps in the Lakewood Ranch road.

Jensen called the economic downturn in 2007 and 2008 "dreadful." However, he said SMR fared better than others because it had not "invested ahead of ourselves."

He said the late Nathan Benderson told him the 2007-2008 years were tougher for the real estate market than the 1930s, which he had lived through.

After the economy recovered, Lakewood Ranch grew in leaps and bounds.

"I am proudest of all the schools we have," Jensen said. "And our resources and conservation efforts. The water systems, the parks. Look at the churches, the stuff that defines a community. Look at the social fabric we have here. Generally speaking, I think the population is satisfied here. They are raising their families and living their lives. We are giving them more entertainment and things to do. It's all about lifestyle."

Once he exited the interview, Jensen was ready to focus back on the future.

"I am hoping to do something more significant in terms of affordable housing," he said. "We have 12,000 people who work here. In Waterside, I would like to do some more affordable housing."

Will we see Lakewood Ranch expand more to the east in Sarasota County?

"It depends on the economy," he said. "How is the stock market doing? How do people feel? It's the same methodology."

He said those who worry about growth should come to certain terms.

"You know, people are going to come," he said. "You can't regulate them out of existence. If you don't approve growth in one form, it will happen in another."

Accommodating that growth will continue to be his job, and continue to be one of the reasons he took it years ago.

"I love the intellectual challenge of it all," he said. "I like puzzles. This has been one."

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