To date, much of the debate about the incorporation of Lakewood Ranch has settled around its impacts to residents. But businesses certainly will feel the impact as well.
Ranch business owners, like residents, offer mixed feelings on the topic. For some, there are still too many unknowns. But for others, taking the leap of faith to become a city — or at least to send the idea to the state Legislature for review — is worth the potential impacts.
“We’re split,” said Realtor Craig Cerreta, who chairs the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance’s Governmental Affairs Committee. “Just like in the residential community, we’ve got people (for and against).”
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
The community of Lakewood Ranch already has received accolades nationwide for its use of greenways and trails, green building and other characteristics.
The U.S. Postal Service opened a Lakewood Ranch branch, giving the community more of its own identity in November 2008. And in October 2010, Lakewood Ranch became the first place in the country to utilize Microsoft’s new TAG technology, a new 2-D bar-coding technology.
Although some business owners say those accomplishments, along with Lakewood Ranch’s maturation, have given — and will continue to give — the business community the recognition it needs, others feel incorporating will add more benefit to the discussion.
For example, Cerreta said the U.S. Office of Management and Budget includes only incorporated areas — North Port, Sarasota, Bradenton, Venice and Longboat Key — on its metropolitan statistical area list. Becoming a city would give Lakewood Ranch more stature in the region and more influence in economic development, he said.
Although the Ranch would not have its own economic development council, the city would work with the Sarasota and Manatee groups to better business in the area and have more of an impact in decisions as they are made.
“It literally gives you more weight at the table,” Cerreta said.
The designation also would offer more long-term benefits in terms of branding and name recognition. Cerreta said people outside the area already are recognizing Lakewood Ranch as a unique community, but incorporating would only further that momentum.
Business owner John Fain, co-owner of Grapevine Communications, agreed.
The Lakewood Ranch resident makes his livelihood in the value of marketing businesses. Fain said his company immediately adopted the use of the Lakewood Ranch name when the postal service recognized it back in November 2008.
“It gave us a unique identity,” Fain said. “In doing that, it’s allowed us to be more independent. In the local market, it has been a positive to be Lakewood Ranch because we are able to market into both Sarasota and Manatee counties easily.
“We’ve encouraged other clients in Lakewood Ranch to adopt the Lakewood Ranch brand right away,” he said. “It’s one of those things that allows you to have a (distinct) identity. That was the first step in creating a new brand.”
The name change, he said, has fostered a more cohesive identity for Lakewood Ranch, which is considered “Bradenton” in Manatee County and “Sarasota” in Sarasota County even though the area is miles away from either county’s downtown.
Incorporating, as Fain sees it, would benefit Ranch’s businesses by giving them a unique identity.
Don Baugh, co-owner of Vanessa Fine Jewelry, agreed.
“It would put Lakewood Ranch more in the spotlight and make it more of a destination location,” Baugh said.
But Leslie Swart, managing partner for Blue Skye Lending, said Lakewood Ranch businesses already are getting that brand recognition.
“It’s already considered Lakewood Ranch,” Swart said. “People already think it’s a city.”
John Saputo, owner of Gold Coast Eagle Distributing, and Jack Cox, president of Halfacre Construction, shared Swart’s sentiments. Moreover, Saputo has pledged his support to the anti-incorporation group, the Friends of Lakewood Ranch, citing he would rather work with Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch than a Lakewood Ranch City Council.
“A corporate staff like SMR is much more responsive and timely,” he said in a Friends press release. “Their educated and practical staff has more of a ‘can-do’ attitude than any bureaucrat I have ever met. The SMR structure is customer friendly.
“It would be a shock to all of us to deal with the red tape that bureaucrats would surely introduce,” he said.
MGA Insurance owner Lou Marinaccio sees the step of incorporation not only as giving Lakewood Ranch its own true identity but also as giving it a role of self-determination.
Although he’s cautious, Marinaccio said the ability to have more influence in the Ranch’s future outweighs potentially negative impacts from incorporating.
“The community itself would benefit by having its own leadership, its own ability to create opportunity for revenue growth,” Marinaccio said.
Fain noted a City Council of Lakewood Ranch residents — all people with a vested interest in the community — would be making decisions about taxes, zoning, image, signage and other issues that may arise.
“You could have control over the whole community, not two sets of county commissioners,” Fain said. “It would make it more cohesive.”
But whether more localized control of issues such as zoning and planning is good or bad for business, ultimately will be determined by Lakewood Ranch’s elected city councilmen and their stance on growth and other issues, Cerreta said.
“It’s a risk,” Cerreta said. “Right now, we know what the game plan is for the county. You know the game.”
Manatee County commissioners, for example, each represent different areas of the county in making decisions that affect particular districts. Under the city of Lakewood Ranch’s proposed structure, however, City Council members would represent areas more similar in demographics and therefore may be more inclined to vote in similar ways, especially considering representatives will be elected by a citywide vote. The scenario, Cerreta said, makes it ripe for a council that leans heavily one way or the other.
Baugh also noted SMR’s foresight in development, as well as its partnerships with Sarasota and Manatee counties, have been important to the Ranch’s success. Moving forward, however, there would be nothing to guarantee a Ranch City Council would carry forward with the same spirit of cooperation and vision.
But, Fain said, the situation with either Sarasota or Manatee counties could change just as easily, and a board that once proved itself pro-business could turn the other way.
“All the issues we’re talking about are outside our control today,” Fain said. “There’s nothing to say Sarasota County couldn’t raise a tax tomorrow. I don’t even live in Sarasota County, so I don’t even have a voice not to vote for that county commissioner (making a bad decision).”
However Saputo, whose business is located in the Lakewood Ranch Corporate Park, said he is happy with how Sarasota County is handling business.
“I don’t think there’s any need for Lakewood Ranch to incorporate,” he said. “I get great support from everyone in Sarasota County. I don’t need another layer of bureaucracy on top of my business.
However, although Ray Neff, a former CEO and president of FCCI and current Lakewood Ranch business owner, agreed with Saputo that bureaucracy generally is not good for business, he also said he does not believe a City Council would be an added layer of government. The council, he said, would have a more vested interest in the community than the counties and quality of decisions and response times would likely improve.
“As I understand the model, this is not a large bureaucracy that is going to be built,” he said, noting the city is proposed to function on contracts. “It just seems like it’s a very efficient way to do things. Some of those folks who are providing tremendous services today will continue to provide (those services).”
Although economist Hank Fishkind’s study projects a surplus in revenues for Lakewood Ranch, business owners are still wary of unanswered questions. Should the new city fall short in revenues, business owners believe they would be the first to be taxed.
“If the need arises to raise taxes, they usually hit businesses first,” Baugh said. “A lot of business (owners) in Lakewood Ranch are not necessarily voters in Lakewood Ranch. They wouldn’t have any vote.”
Scott Bollingbroke, owner of Kids Supergym, agreed.
“My major concern with this turning into a city is that it does not affect the taxing — that taxes don’t come up or other fees aren’t added in the picture,” he said. “For a small business like this, I don’t know if there’s any other pluses or minuses (beyond that). The uncertainty part is the part that worries me.”
Fain, however, pointed out there’s an equal opportunity for revenues to come in 5% above projections as there is for revenues to fall short by 5%.
Additionally, Manatee or Sarasota counties could initiate new taxes or other changes that could affect costs at any time.
“Millage rates, taxes, permitting fees — all that stuff (can be) changed whether or not you’re a city,” Cerreta said.
Businesses in Sarasota County, however, are in a unique position because they would potentially see a tax increase equivalent to Manatee County’s MSTU tax — .6109 mills. Pro-incorporators say they intend to have the difference offset through some sort of tax credits or rebates for affected businesses. And some business owners, such as Neff, also said the increase, if it’s not offset, is a small price to pay for the larger pot of money the city would get in state-shared revenues.
Saputo, whose multi-million operation is in Lakewood Ranch Corporate Park, said he already pays a six-figure property tax and does not need the new tax, which would equate to about $11,000 or more annually.
“I assure you — that’s a very low number,” Saputo said. “This is a ridiculous idea.”
“The services we get from Sarasota County and (SMR are good), and I don’t know why I’d want to pay additional taxes for the services I’m getting,” Cox said.
Cerreta said there also is a concern that impact fees collected from Lakewood Ranch are not being used proportionately for the community. Although as a city, Lakewood Ranch would have to continue to share impact fee dollars with the county, the city would, at least, have more control over how and where those dollars are spent.
“Businesses and residents don’t fully understand where money from impact fees go and by incorporating, they’d (have a say),” Cerreta said. “There’s new money over the next 10 or 15 years that’s going to be generated right here.”
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].
Business alliance remains neutral
The Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance will not take a formal position on the issue of incorporation.
Alliance President Bobbi Larson said both sides of the debate have offered valid arguments, and the alliance remains uncertain.
“There’s a lot of information we feel like is missing,” Larson said. “Many of our members may work in Lakewood Ranch but they don’t live in Lakewood Ranch so they would not be included in the straw poll.”
Study group launching poll
The Lakewood Ranch Incorporation Study Group is moving forward with a straw poll of Lakewood Ranch residents.
A third-party firm will be mailing straw polls to all registered voters Aug. 1, and individuals will have three weeks to respond. The poll will determine whether incorporation should be considered by the state Legislature. If approved by the Legislature, the issue of incorporation would go to a vote by registered voters.
Incorporation Study Committee member Keith Davey said the group expects to have results of the vote back by the end of August.