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Plan shows athletic facilities, trails and indoor space needed in Manatee County parks

The Manatee County Parks Master Plan gives a blueprint to the future of parks and recreational spaces in Manatee County.

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  • | 9:50 a.m. November 19, 2021
  • East County
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For the past five years, Manatee County Parks and Recreation Director Charlie Hunsicker and his staff have been working on a master plan to update the county’s park system.

He presented what he called the blueprint for the future of Manatee County Parks and Recreation to Manatee County Commissioners in a workshop Nov. 10. Manatee’s parks master plan is intended to provide guidance for parks services for the future based on community visions and trends.

Online surveys and community workshops have been used over the last two years to get feedback on what the public wants to see added to parks. Nature trails, pickleball courts and large community parks were identified as needs by the public.

“Nature trails have become a priority for us,” Hunsicker said. “Biking trails, community parks and pickleball have all become a priority. We move forward with millions of dollars of commitment from our Capital Improvement Plan, to address pickleball now and again in the future. So I feel that we have landed squarely on the priorities that keep coming forward each and every day.”

The study also found that air conditioned recreational space — especially for summer programs — is lacking. Aquatics, more athletic fields and more land for acquisition while the county can still obtain it were also concerns. 

"In Florida there needs to be a focus on aquatics,” Ken Clark of Kimley-Horn and Associates told commissioners. “We need to continue to grow our athletics as our population continues to grow"

Clark said that while youth Sports, adult sports, senior sports and swimming are all getting a lot of attention already, there needs to be an even greater focus on those in the future.

Help is on the way for pickleball players and swimmers in Lakewood Ranch. Manatee County is set to construct 24 new pickleball courts and an aquatic center at Premier Park that could be similar to the Selby Aquatic Center in Sarasota. Pickleball courts could be completed by the end of next summer, while the aquatic complex would follow in 2024.

Commissioners discussed the lack of air-conditioned spaces in recreational facilities and brought up the idea of possibly using gyms belonging to Manatee District Schools. Commissioner Reggie Bellamy, a former high school basketball coach, said that those gyms are already full during the summer with teams hosting practices and tournaments.

Bellamy said he would like to see five gymnasiums built at Premier, where plans currently call for a single gym structure. He said the county may need to prepare to be proactive instead of reactive due to population growth and needs.

“This isn’t just for basketball and volleyball — this is about our summer camp empire,” he said. “I'm not going to go away from that (multiple gyms at Premier), because of the growth and because of the way we can enhance the impact during the summer during our time with the youth and things like that. Five is a big number, but big things are going to take place at Premier.”

More soccer and baseball/softball fields are also on the county’s wish list. Clark said the 25 soccer fields at Premier are all pushing 1,000 hours of play, which is more than double what a field would normally see in a year. The county is looking at possibly adding more fields at Buffalo Creek Park and a soccer complex at Falkner Farms — both of which are located near Parrish — in the future.

Hunsicker said Manatee County is at a disadvantage when it comes to trails because of the lack of abandoned railroad track systems. The Legacy Trail, which stretches through most of Sarasota County, was built on a former railroad track. 

Ideally, Manatee County would have a trail system that connects to Hillsborough County in the north and Sarasota County to the south, linking it to the Hillsborough to Sarasota Gateway-Greenway Trail. Hunsicker said the county is working on obtaining lands to make it work, drawing the praise of Commissioner George Kruse.

Dozens of pickleball players take to the courts in Lakewood Ranch Park on Nov. 11. Manatee County's Parks Master Plan shows that many more courts are needed around the county.
Dozens of pickleball players take to the courts in Lakewood Ranch Park on Nov. 11. Manatee County's Parks Master Plan shows that many more courts are needed around the county.

“I think this matters the most for Manatee County because it transcends one little area, one little district and it incorporates going all the way to Hillsborough, all the way down to Sarasota,” said Kruse, who wants to make the trail system a legislative priority. “It’ll ultimately go all the way down the west coast, up to the north coast and eventually all the way across the state.”

Commissioner Vanessa Baugh wondered if changes needed to be made or if the Parks Master Plan needs to be reviewed in the future due to growth. According to Hunsicker the plan is not a construction contract, but a plan that allows park staff and county commissioners to decide how they want to shape things for the future.

“There's plenty of room and opportunity within a planning process, to have everyone agree, get the community input and move forward on the needs of it,” Hunsicker said.

Commissioners voted unanimously to send the plan to the county attorney’s office, where it will be crafted into an agenda item for formal adoption later this year.



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