The future of a Lakewood Ranch library is still uncertain, but that hasn’t stopped residents from coming together to author the story of their ideal local branch.
Scattered on a table at a local community event in early spring are bright green post-it notes scrawled with ideas: “butterfly garden,” “3D printing,” “yoga,” “movie nights” and more. These may not seem like ideas that would fill a typical quiet-zone library, but they are the budding wish list for Manatee County’s plans to erect a new branch on 2 acres at the Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch.
“What a lot of people remember are their experiences as children — it was very different back then,” says Glenda Lammers, library services manager at the Central Library in Downtown Bradenton. “It was a quiet place. You read your book. You didn’t have computers or all these stimulating things that were also ways to learn. Libraries today are not like that any longer.”
That’s exactly what the Friends of the East Manatee Library at Lakewood Ranch is hoping for — a noisy, interactive, state-of-the-art facility that draws visitors of all ages and with all interests. The Central Library branch, for example, is home to Area 52, a room filled with recording equipment, a 3D printer, sewing machines and even some power tools that celebrates hands-on teen learning, rather than shushing it.
With hopes to bring library access closer to home, the Lakewood Ranch-based Friends group formed in January 2018. The eight members have been attending County Commission meetings and gathering community input — like the post-it note table — to fine-tune the types of programs they could fund once the library is constructed.
“The libraries in this country are truly outstanding,” says Sue Ann Miller, president of the Friends of the East Manatee Library at Lakewood Ranch. “The purpose of the Friends group is to support the library. The job is to do fundraising to be able to pay for programs above and beyond what the county can provide.
“We would love to have an Area 52 like they have [at the Central Library], with the music recording and the robotics and 3D printing and all those resources. The children in the eastern part of the county just don’t have easy access to get there. The Friends would support those types of services.”
And while the size, design, master plan and even the name for the new East County branch have yet to be determined, the Friends have their share of ideas for programs they’d like to fund and facilitate.
“The Friends are begging for a bookstore,” Miller says. “It really provides sustainable funding. We’ve visited many libraries in the two-county area, and many that are new construction. We’re drooling over the bookstores and the gift stores that they have.”
And if the size of the facility won’t accommodate a store, Miller sees plenty of fundraising opportunities with bi-annual book sale events. “Rocky Bluff Library makes about $4,000 with each book sales event — they do two a year,” she says.
While the use of the Friends’ funds will be based on agreed-upon needs, Miller expects to use first-year funds for a summer reading program ($2,500), library staff professional development ($1,000), creative aging programs ($1,500) and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) programs for kids ($3,000).
That is all music to Sonya Walsh’s ears. The stay-at-home mom travels 9 miles to the Braden River Library once a week with her two daughters, which can take up to 20 minutes from their Polo Run home. The Premier location for the new branch is less than 2 miles from her home. “It’s ridiculously close,” she says.
“The Braden River branch is great, but it gets very busy and the kids need more space to roam,” Walsh says. According to Lammers, that branch averages 100 visitors per hour.
Walsh’s 5-year-old daughter, Scarlett, especially enjoys the activity boxes in the Braden River kid’s area. “They’re specially curated boxes based on a theme, like Egypt or the solar system,” says Walsh, who likes that her girls can play with the toys and leave them there … “so our house isn’t a storage locker.”
In the new branch, she’d like to see a dedicated space for moms’ group meetings. “At the Rocky Bluff branch, they have a coffee shop and it’s amazing.” That branch is 15 miles from the Walshes’ home.
Miller notes Walsh’s closer branch in Braden River is stretched beyond its capacity, with items being checked out every 30 seconds and a new member receiving a library card every 30 minutes, she says.
“They’re busy, No. 1, because they’re excellent,” Lammers says. “They do excellent programing and provide excellent service. Their story times are very well attended, with as many as 72 people in a session. The library is where it’s happening.”
While each of the libraries in the county has its own Friends group, the Lakewood Ranch-based group has its aspirations, yet Lammers notes that funding the new facility is still being determined. In April, commissioners approved devoting a larger portion of the county’s infrastructure sales tax to the new library. That brings its total allocations to $10 million: $2.2 million from impact fees and $7.8 million from the infrastructure sales tax.
Although the library will be the first facility built on the Premier property, it will have to wait for the Braden River Library branch expansion.
The Braden River branch expansion has been on the docket for several years, and is planned in phases, with priority No. 1: a 1,500-square-foot children’s space. The county has applied for a state grant of $500,000 for the $1 million project for the last three years, but the last local library construction grant to be approved by the state was in 2016.
“The East County is continuing to grow,” says Miller, who moved to Bridgewater at Lakewood Ranch from Pennsylvania three years ago, where she worked in education for 35 years. “The growth is going to continue for next 20 to 30 years. We want the new library to be capable of handling the increase in population. The commissioners all need to have a vision of the future and plan that way.”
Lammers says that she’s “planning big” for the East County branch, along with other library administration and county staff, and hopes to have a design concept and a master plan for the new branch by the end of 2019. Her priorities for the new branch include dedicated spaces for children and teens with STEAM labs, a dividable community room to accommodate multiple groups at one time, as well as books and other materials for residents to check out.
“I know what I want,” Lammers says. “I don’t know that it’s going to be a reality. We can’t finalize anything … it’s in the budget cycle right now.”
As head of the Friends group, Miller remains hopeful and persistent that the group can raise enough funds to add meaningful services once the branch is built. The group’s first official fundraising event is set for March 2020 with an author luncheon with Mary Walton, who wrote “A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot,” in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote.
“Lakewood Ranch residents have been asking for their own library for a long time — going back 10 years,” she says. “We want something comparable to [Central Library] in the eastern part of the county. We want equal access.”