Manatee County commissioners talk about the timeline for Premier Park in Lakewood Ranch.
Plans for some of the long-awaited amenities for the Premier Park site in Lakewood Ranch are beginning to take shape.
Fresh off the final approval for the new East County library that will be constructed on the north end of the property, Manatee County commissioners are getting a look at some of the first wave of park amenities, which have Commissioner Vanessa Baugh dreaming of future swim meets and pickleball tournaments.
“Every time I think about when it’s going to be finished, I think the same thing: live, work and play in Lakewood Ranch and the surrounding areas,” she said. “This is a live, work and play community. We hope to have these types of facilities all over Manatee County for all the residents to enjoy and give the best quality of life we can possibly give.”
Leading the way is an aquatic complex that will be the first of its kind in Lakewood Ranch. The county plans to build a 25-yard, 10-lane lap pool along with a shallow area for swim lessons and other fitness activities. Starting blocks, lane lines, in-pool and deck lighting, water heating, cooling and filtration systems, deck seating, and shade structures will be included.
The aquatic complex is something Baugh said Lakewood Ranch “has needed since yesterday.” Fellow Commissioner George Kruse said Lakewood Ranch needs a facility similar to the Selby Aquatic Complex in Sarasota that is known for hosting major meets.
“A lot of these homes in Lakewood Ranch have pools — and that’s great — but these aren’t large enough for our swim teams to use to practice,” Baugh said. “We’re also looking at it from the standpoint that we would like to be able to have tournaments at Premier for the swim teams as well, instead of having to go elsewhere. Let’s try to keep it at home and have those at Lakewood Ranch.”
Baugh said the county has submitted the aquatic project to contractors for proposal. The cost of the aquatic center is estimated at $13.6 million and could open by summer 2024.
Even before the aquatic complex will open, a new pickleball facility will open, targeted for summer 2022.
Pickleball players have complained about a shortage of courts available in the Lakewood Ranch area.
Baugh said the project features 24 pickleball courts, a small administration office, restrooms, water fountains, lighting and shade structures. It’s expected to cost an estimated $4.8 million.
Plans call for the pickleball facility to be built in three pods, with eight courts in each pod. The county has requested that one of the pods be constructed with a shade structure that would protect players from the elements, which Baugh said are similar to the courts the county is building at G.T. Bray Park in Bradenton.
Plan documents show that additional parking and a small Manatee County service center that will house broadband and IT services for the complex are slated to be built by 2023.
Baugh said future projects on the site could include an amphitheater, a gymnasium, a baseball/softball complex, a dog park, a playground, a BMX bike track, basketball courts, volleyball courts, clay tennis courts and a Manatee County Sheriff district office and fleet facility. More green space, 500 additional parking spaces and a skate park could also be in the pipeline.
Kruse said the park has to be spaced out due to funding issues. Manatee County has to spread funds to other park improvements and other expenses. The county is also building the Lincoln Park Pool in Palmetto and expanding pickleball courts at G.T. Bray Park.
“We need to make sure we’re allocating the funds we have for Parks and Rec equitably throughout the county, even if a majority of it go into Premier because it’s kind of a flagship project,” Kruse said. “It can’t be the entirety of it. Otherwise, we’re excluding the entire rest of the county. And that’s not something we can do right now.”
Staffing and cost overruns are other issues the county would face if they built more amenities at the present time. Baugh said the county can not use proceeds from infrastructure sales tax and impact fees — two of the main sources of funding for parks — for staffing.
“This is not an inexpensive venture to build all of these facilities at Premier,” Baugh said. “Once we build a pool, we need to have lifeguards. We need to have staff to operate these facilities and help citizens when they use the parks. It takes a little bit of maneuvering, budgeting and scheduling to make sure we can get it all done and then afford it once we have it.”
Kruse said he looks forward to the park being a “premier” destination in Manatee County. He said it might take several years before all of the projects come to fruition but that the wait will be worth it in the end because it will be utilized by everyone in Manatee County.
“All of our current outdoor recreation is focused out west, and that’s where we have G.T. Bray, the Robinson Preserve and Emerson Point,” Kruse said. “All the growth and development has been out east — and we just don’t have anything like a G.T. Bray out here. The intention of Premier is to provide an all-inclusive outdoor location for Lakewood Ranch and Myakka City and, to a lesser extent, even Parrish.
“It’s not just going to be sports. It’s not just going to be a Lakewood Ranch amenity. It’s an amenity of the county.”
The county also is continuing to develop the adjacent Premier Sports Campus as well. Manatee County is in the design phase of a new air-conditioned, permanently framed, multipurpose soccer tent. Climate-controlled restrooms, locker rooms and stadium improvements — including new lights and a scoreboard — are also part of the estimated $6.4 million project.
“That’s going to be nice because our summers get so hot, and these teams need an area where they can get there at the end of the tournament and get their awards and their trophies,” Baugh said. “It’ll just work out beautifully for them and gives them a little bit of shade. It’s going to be wonderful.”
Premier Sports Campus already features 25 soccer fields — including eight with lights — across 14 acres, a 3,000-seat stadium, concession stands with seating areas and permanent restroom facilities in the stadium area.
Kruse said the soccer facility is a major driver of tourism in the area.
“Almost every weekend there is a major soccer tournament there, and you get hundreds of teams,” he said. “All those people are staying at hotels, eating in restaurants and seeing our community.”
Kruse said the big tournaments put the spotlight on Manatee County for people throughout Florida and, in some cases, throughout the country.
The 6,500-square-foot soccer structure that could hold as many as 400 people in a banquet-style setting could be completed in late 2023.
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