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CEO promotes smart growth

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  • | 5:00 a.m. November 20, 2012
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LAKEWOOD RANCH — Rex Jensen says the vision for development must change.

Jensen, CEO for Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch since 1990, spoke Nov. 14 to a crowd of business professionals, at the Polo Grill and Bar’s Féte Ballroom during a luncheon hosted by the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance.

Jensen and Ed Hunzeker, Manatee County administrator, provided a strategy for beating challenging economic times with an eye toward the future.

During a tag-team speech, they called the area’s usual growth strategy of building low density, spread-out mansions obsolete, harped on the local government’s over-reliance on property taxes and spoke about newfound cooperation between business and commissioners.

In a nod to Vanessa Baugh, the new District 5 representative for the Manatee County Board of County Commissioners, who sat at the front of the room, and District 7 Commissioner Betsy Benac, a veteran local businesswoman who took Joe McClash’s seat, Jensen said Manatee County “has a business-receptive government for the first time in history.”

Jensen wants to provide incentive for businesses to relocate here, referencing Feld Entertainment — which produces shows such as Disney on Ice — and its move to Manatee County.

In that case, and in future ones, Jensen said he wants the county to give financial help to employees who relocate and decide to live in Lakewood Ranch.

“That’s what people are looking for in making corporate relocation decisions: Where can I get the biggest bang for my buck?” Jensen said. “If we didn’t (help with moving costs), the company would reimburse the employee’s moving costs, so it saves the company and employees money.”

The former Manatee County vision, Jensen said, featured doubt that it could grow beyond Interstate 75.
He has a new vision in which Lakewood Ranch will feature more high density, high-rise buildings that keep costs down and stray somewhat from SMR’s suburban feel.

SMR has plans for developing several thousand acres of its Sarasota County property, including retail and housing, near the Benderson mall.

“The days of everyone affording a mansion are gone,” Jensen said. “The way we have always grown is the wrong way. We need to get away from having three homes for every 15 acres. It doesn’t add revenue. We want to keep pricing points down so that young professionals can afford a home.”

Jensen’s urgent talk gave way for Hunzeker, a former deputy county auditor in St. Louis and finance guru, to provide laughs.

Hunzeker wants to add revenues to local government and diversify taxes.

He told a story of his father, who once said free items have no value.

“My dad said everybody should pay their fair share,” Hunzeker said.

To get away from an over-reliance on property taxes, Hunzeker suggested alternative revenues such as user fees for libraries and parks, a sales tax, stormwater fees, utility franchise fees and taxing tourists.

Although Jensen and Hunzeker both want growth, they said they want to be smart about it.

That means putting major retail projects on the back burner and staying out of the Benderson Development’s way as it builds a large high-end mall on the corner of University Parkway and I-75.

“We can’t compete with Benderson, and we don’t want to,” Jensen said.

Such a restrained growth strategy reflects a new reality.

“There’s every incentive out there to just stop and wait and see how things are going to go before we make another step,” Jensen said. “We can’t afford to do that. On the other hand, we can’t afford to play kamikaze.”

Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].


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