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East County Wednesday, May 16, 2018 10 months ago

Stage set for the arts in Lakewood Ranch

As it continues to mature, Lakewood Ranch community ready for fine arts presence.
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

Philadelphia artist Christopher Buonomo was headed to the Paragon Fine Arts Festival on April 26 but he had one problem.

"I had never heard of Lakewood Ranch," Buonomo said. "I had to use the GPS. But when I pulled off the highway, I was blown away. It was like a new city."

It isn't surprising a Philadelphia resident hadn't heard of Lakewood Ranch, except that Buonomo had done several arts shows in Sarasota. Lakewood Ranch just never had made it on his arts and culture radar.

For its first 20-plus years of existence, Lakewood Ranch hasn't been on anyone's arts and cultural radar, and that has been fine since the unincorporated area has experienced huge growth without it. Now, though, master planner Schroeder-Manatee Ranch has been serious in making sure the new $30 million Players Centre for the Performing Arts will be part of its Waterside Place hub.

The exact contribution by SMR has yet to be announced, but it has donated a prime lot within its new Waterside downtown area to The Players.

"The arts is a fundamental element of any community," said Monaca Onstad, the director of community relations for SMR. "Not only does it provide entertainment and education, it also drives economic growth. Through the years, Lakewood Ranch has promoted the arts through annual events like Ovation and partnerships with various Manatee and Sarasota arts groups. We are excited for the next evolution of the arts on the Ranch with the incorporation of The Players Centre for Performing Arts."

While Lakewood Ranch has hosted various arts and cultural events over the years, it never has had a theater, and until recently, didn't even have an arts gallery at Main Street at Lakewood Ranch.

Jim Shirley, the executive director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, said those in Lakewood Ranch shouldn't fret about not having a fine arts presence to this point.

"It takes time to build," Shirley said. "Lakewood Ranch is in its absolute infancy.

"Look at the highway (Interstate 75) near Lakewood Ranch. An aquarium is considered a cultural asset and that's going to be built there. Add to that a theater, a rowing facility (at Nathan Benderson Park), I know they have discussed an amphitheater for Nathan Benderson Park. This area is building assets, other than just being a great place to live."

But is an fine arts presence really needed?

Judith Tilton, who started Jan. 16 in the new position of Manatee County's director of cultural affairs, said a fine arts presence, indeed, is important to a community.

"A fine arts presence improves education and has been shown to improve test scores," she said. "It also promotes healthy, positive wellbeing."

Manatee County hired Tilton to help drive its arts and cultural offerings.

"We want to retain our residents," she said. "We don't want them to leave to attend a similar event in another community."

Ovation gives Main Street at Lakewood Ranch a fine arts presence on a yearly basis, and more arts offerings are on the way.

While much of the county's focus, in terms of arts, has been its downtown Bradenton and beach areas, Tilton said she is meeting with the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance to see how she can help the fine arts presence improve in Lakewood Ranch.

Business Alliance Executive Director Heather Kasten said it's an exciting time to see the Players' Centre headed to Lakewood Ranch. "When you look at well-rounded communities, where you live, work and play, arts is a part of that," Kasten said. "That's a piece of the puzzle Lakewood Ranch is missing."

Kasten noted that she has seen an uptick in arts and cultural organizations joining the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance, including the Venice Symphony, the Asolo Repertory Theatre, the Sarasota Opera. the Manatee Players and the Sarasota Orchestra.

"This is a community that cares about the arts," Kasten said. "We don't want to be a bedroom community."

Shirley said Lakewood Ranch will reap the monetary benefits as it evolves as a fine arts community.

"For example, Sarasota County employs 7,445 people fulltime in nonprofit arts organizations," Shirley said. "That makes the arts one of the region's largest employers.

"I've had multiple meetings with businesses, civic organizations and residents in the last 10 years about getting more of an arts presence in Lakewood Ranch. It just takes the stars to align."

He said the stars are aligning at the planned Players Centre.

"To have a Players theater in the middle of Lakewood Ranch is a huge benefit to the business community," he said. "And one of the reasons the Players has been so successful in Sarasota is because so many community leaders get involved."

He said the economic impact will follow.

He said in Sarasota, 2,5 million people bought tickets to arts and cultural events in one year (2015 the last year studied). Of those 2.5 million patrons, 50 percent were tourists.

"Cultural tourists spend 40% more than the non-cultural tourist," he said. "It's a different return on your investment."

Sharon Hillstrom, the president and CEO of Bradenton Area Economic Development, said a fine arts presence does, indeed, raise the value of homes and make the area more attractive to business.

"It speaks to the quality of a place," Hillstrom said. "There are a lot of difference factors to consider. Lakewood Ranch is creating its own identity and having a robust cultural scene is a plus."

The arts growth has caught the eye of Bill Paragon, who started a fine arts festival at Main Street and now will host a seafood festival on Nov. 24-25 as well.

"I have been watching Lakewood Ranch and its growth," he said. "I went to Music on Main and it took me an hour to find a parking spot. Then I thought about our Sarasota Fine Arts Festival last January in which many of our buyers were from Lakewood Ranch."

Everything seems to be going in a positive direction, although some community leaders might have been worried April 26 when Michelle Bianchi resigned as the CEO and managing director of The Player Centre for Performing Arts.

Would her resignation affect plans to build the group's $30 million theater complex at Waterside Place in Lakewood Ranch?

Players Board Chair Board Donna DeFant said "No, it won't."

Arts and culture fans had to breath a sign of relief.

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