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East County Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 6 months ago

Strike up the band

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Early plans have arisen for a ‘concert’-type venue in Lakewood Ranch. What it will look like and when — or if — it gets built are questions that remain.
by: Eric Snider Contributor

It’s an idea that could become a concept that could become a plan that might result in an amphitheater-stye concert venue in Lakewood Ranch.

A facility of that sort has been included in the early stages of a master plan to build out the Manatee County-owned portion of Premier Sports Campus. The 17-acre project would also include a racket-sports complex, with an emphasis on pickleball courts, an aquatic center, a soccer complex, playgrounds, a training facility, a 25,000-square-foot gymnasium, a dog park and more.

A 2019 version of the master plan notes a band shell and lawn with a seating capacity of 19,000.

At this point, the only component that’s locked in is a 24,000-square-foot library that’s expected to break ground in spring 2020. The rest, officials stress, is still quite speculative. A work in progress. Part of a much larger — phased — master plan. A lot of moving parts. No guarantees. You get the idea.

The thing is that the county has developed a rough site map that tends to make the yet-to-be-named project a bit more tangible. And found on the eastern border of the “bubble map” is an intriguing space earmarked “Event lawn: 3.5 +/- acres, band shell, 19,000 seating capacity.” It’s literally right there in black and white.

If you let your mind run a little wild, such a facility as specced on the plan would rival the size of MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheater outside Tampa, which has played host to some big music names. But don’t get too excited — or worried. A venue of that magnitude is not likely to happen. It would require enormous infrastructure, both physical and organizational, to hold, say, a Dave Matthews Band concert in Lakewood Ranch. A high-paid executive would have to be brought in to run the place. Traffic in and out could be a nightmare. So, probably, would parking. A massive stage and accompanying equipment would have to be put in.

“Nineteen thousand capacity?” asked an incredulous Vanessa Baugh, who represents Lakewood Ranch on the Manatee County Commission. “I can tell you that has not been discussed. It would be very hard to handle in the space we’re talking about.”

So a more modest event venue, then?

Area leaders echo that a more modest-sized venue comparable to Mosaic Amphitheater on the Bradenton Riverwalk would be a better fit.

Charlie Hunsicker, the county Parks & Natural Resources director, envisions something akin to the band shell at Sutton Park in Palmetto or the 400-capacity Mosaic Amphitheater on the Bradenton Riverwalk. (How’s that for a buzz kill?) John Osborne, deputy county commissioner for infrastructure and strategic planning, sees “a festival grounds with four or five stages that would accommodate everything from wandering musicians to amplified music. It’s what is available from the smallest New England towns to downtown Miami. It fits the scale and quality of the community.” (Less of a buzz kill — though Osborne did emphasize the future venue’s tentative status.)

At this point, county officials appear bent on tamping down expectations. A timeline of 10 years or more, with the full project rolling out in phases, has been floated. Meanwhile, residents are in more of a hurry.

“I like the plan, but I don’t like the timeline,” Lakewood Ranch resident Carol Lucas told the East County Observer during a plan feedback meeting in September. “I’d like it sooner than later. I know they’ve got to think it through, but I don’t want delays.”

It’s not a matter of money. The available funds are there through impact fees, a half-cent sales tax earmarked for recreation and possibly, in Baugh’s view, tourist development taxes. Of course, those dollars trickle in over time. It’s more about priorities — what to build and in what sequence. By overwhelming consensus, the utmost desire (after the library) is a pickleball complex.

“If there’s anything Lakewood Ranch residents want, it’s a library and pickleball courts,” Baugh declared. Osborne echoed that sentiment.

Lakewood Ranch has no shortage of parks and recreational facilities, but it lacks an amphitheater for concerts and festivals.

“Lakewood Ranch has entered the big leagues in terms of important and rapidly growing developments in the country,” Hunsicker says. “Anyone who’s come out of a New England town recognizes the value of a town square-type place where people can come together. And [the proposed venue] is not tied to one development or another but available for all residents of Manatee County to enjoy.”

He thinks a concert-style facility will ultimately take shape on the Premier Sports Campus site. So do Baugh and Osborne, though Baugh is particularly bullish on it.

“They’ve had concerts on the Premier Sports grounds before,” she says. “I saw the Doobie Brothers there, and it was fantastic.”

So let’s hear it for some type of concert venue in Lakewood Ranch, so long as it’s set up in a way that doesn’t disturb the nearby neighborhoods, of course.

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