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East County Friday, Nov. 30, 2018 11 months ago

Many said: 'You're nuts' when it came to starting the East County Observer in Lakewood Ranch

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When we launched in 1998, there were 650 residences in Lakewood Ranch. Twenty years later, there are nearly 14,000. Who's nuts?
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

Spring 1998: Our Observer company had just celebrated its third year in business. One of our advertising executives, Bob Lewis, a
longtime resident of Sarasota who previously operated his own advertising agency in Sarasota and Manatee counties, told my father-in-law and me we should look east.

“You should have a paper there,” Lewis said.

It took some coaxing, but Lewis persuaded us to get out of our office on Gulf of Mexico Drive on Longboat Key and ride with him
around the areas bordering the east and west sides of Interstate 75 between State Road 64 and University Parkway.

We had no idea of the extent of the home building, nor a clue of what was to come.

Matt Walsh

From what we saw out the car windows, there wasn’t much. A lot of open space. This young development called Lakewood Ranch had a nice sales center at its entryway on University Parkway and the proverbial new Publix Super Market (always a sign that the experts know what’s coming). But when you traveled farther east, the picture became clearer.

Lewis introduced us to Schroeder-Manatee Ranch and Lakewood Ranch. “This is all going to be new homes,” he said.

Even so, at that particular moment, it made little sense to start a newspaper. There weren’t enough people or businesses that would
advertise to support it. At the end of 1997, there were only 610 residential units in Lakewood Ranch. When you reached Lorraine Road on University Parkway, you thought you had reached the end of civilization.

But on Nov. 4, 1998, we launched the East County Observer.

Many people thought we were nuts.

In a way, we were. At the time, we were publishing The Longboat Observer and two other startup publications: the Gulf Coast Business Review (now the Business Observer) and Black Tie magazine.

Smarter business people would feign from taking on a third startup at once. But there was just something too alluring about what was to be in East Manatee County. Growth forecasts projected residential units in Lakewood Ranch growing to 7,220 by 2010. This was the new frontier of growth.

So starting a newspaper and being the first dedicated solely to covering Lakewood Ranch and East Manatee County presented a rush of pioneering excitement.

“Everyone tells me this was a great move,” I wrote to our board of directors then. “They say in five years, the East County Observer should be as big or bigger than the Longboat Observer.”

It was a good move. It took us five years to reach the same revenue size that it took the Longboat Observer 16 years to reach. Today, the East County Observer is the largest paper by circulation — 23,100 — of our four weekly Observers in this region (Longboat, Sarasota, Siesta Key).

What’s more, our distribution in the Lakewood Ranch area is almost eight times greater than each of the two dailies’ subscribers.

And Lakewood Ranch itself is close to having doubled the 2010 forecasts, with nearly 14,000 housing units and about 27,500 population in the two Lakewood Ranch zip codes alone.

It’s hard to believe, almost shocking, to realize that 20 years has passed since the start of the East County Observer. And indeed, it has been exciting to be an intimate observer and reporter of how this region has grown and become the tight-knit community that it is.

Much of the East County region’s identity can be attributed to the vision and execution of the leaders of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch. They created Lakewood Ranch — the community and the brand. It may be east of downtown Bradenton and Sarasota, but it is a force of equal, and one day likely to have greater stature. Credit first goes to the late Mary Fran Carroll, founding CEO of Lakewood Ranch and CEO of its owner, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch.

Carroll was a trust banker from Northern Trust in Chicago recruited in the mid-1980s to turn the Uihlein family’s 26,000 acres of ranch and mining into a profitable business. She often told the story of how she sat in a meeting of the Ranch directors — all descendants of Schlitz brewing company in Milwaukee — and told them they faced a choice: Either develop their property or lose
it to the development of a new airport.

Carroll envisioned more than a planned development. She wanted to create a community. And that’s what she and her team did.

Carroll and her successors, first John Clarke and now current CEO Rex Jensen, painstakingly controlled every detail in the growth of Lakewood Ranch — what was developed where, when and how. Jensen told the Observer in 2014 after Carroll’s death, the success of Lakewood Ranch can be attributed in great part to Carroll’s insistence on quality. And you can clearly see that.

You can say this, too, about Lakewood Ranch: Since 1995, the time home sales began in Lakewood Ranch, the development and
growth of Lakewood Ranch has been the most significant, most positive, most transformational socio-economic contribution in the region. But to make that so was not just the vision and work of SMR. It also is because of the people who live, work, play and worship in Lakewood Ranch and its nearby communities.

“Ranchers” exude a sense of pride and camaraderie. You especially see this in the charity that overflows for a Ranch resident in need; in the spirit for the schools; in the hordes of people lining Main Street cheering at the annual Memorial Day parade; and in the enthusiasm in the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance, the 650-member organization that feels more like a tight-knit family than a business association.

As “observers” of all that goes on in Lakewood Ranch and East County, even 20 years into this, we still enjoy the rush as much today as we did in the beginning: of telling your unique stories; introducing you to the people making a difference; reporting the news; and connecting our advertisers with our readers.

We see ourselves in the same business as Mary Fran Carroll envisioned with Lakewood Ranch: building a community.

Indeed, our company’s mission statement embraces that goal: “To inspire our communities with extraordinary local content, and to help our partners prosper.”

We remain as determined and excited today as we were 20 years ago to be your “go-to” source for local news and information about you, your neighbors and your neighborhoods. We can’t wait to see what the next 20 years will bring, and we intend to be there whenever and wherever it happens.

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