In 2017, when Suncoast Charities for Children needed a new home for its annual motorcycle festival, Thunder by the Bay, Lakewood Ranch stepped to the plate.
Held in January at Premier Sports Campus, it was relatively successful despite some nasty weather. It appeared it would be a boon to area businesses for years to come.
Then in August of that year, the announcement came that the festival would return to Sarasota.
Whether it's Lakewood Ranch or somewhere else in East County, annual events that attract people from the region and beyond can have a positive economic impact for hotels, shop owners and restaurants. That's why the news about the Sarasota Medieval Fair moving to Myakka City appeared to be ultra positive.
Sure, it isn't on the scale of Thunder by the Bay, but the Sarasota Medieval Fair has been drawing people to its event for the past 16 years. In September 2020 when Sarasota Medieval Fair President Jeremy Croteau purchased 47 acres on State Road 70 in Myakka City — a property Croteau now calls the Woods of Mallaranny — it was a sign the festival wasn't going to be a one-and-done but rather a longtime calendar event for our area.
Hallelujah! Another feather in our entertainment cap.
But as the first day — Nov. 6 — approaches for the Sarasota Medieval Fair, uncertainty abounds.
On Sept. 2, six Manatee County employees were placed on administrative leave in connection with an ongoing investigation led by Manatee County Inspector General Lori Stephens. The investigation was related to the county's Code Enforcement Division. Stephens said she was investigating whether code enforcement officials ignored citizens' complaints about construction that was taking place on the property by Mallaranny LLC, which is managed by Croteau.
Neighbors complained to the county that construction on the property was causing flooding on their land. Despite those complaints, construction continued. Code Enforcement Officer Tanya Shaw began to investigate after the original complaints by Ireland and Grosse. Shaw said she informed Kathleen Croteau, Jeremy Croteau's mother, of multiple violations on the property, including an on-site RV that appeared to be occupied. Shaw said she later checked and saw no site plan or permits filed with the county. A couple weeks later, she said she went to Ireland’s property.
“From his property, I could see tons of heavy equipment brought in, the land clearing that was going on, the fill dirt, you could tell it was very obvious that fill dirt was being brought in,” Shaw told the East County Observer.
After Shaw informed her supervisor, she was instructed to tell the complainants there were no violations. Shaw refused and reported the matter to county officials.
So here we are, months later, with a festival that could have a very positive impact on our area ready to begin. However, the county's investigation continues.
Croteau sent a letter to the editor to the East County Observer (Page 10), saying he never tried to receive any favoritism from Manatee County officials. He has hired a publicist, Edie Ousley, president of Yellow Finch Strategies, to speak for him. Ousley said Manatee County's investigation has nothing to do with Mallaranny LLC or Jeremy Croteau and said it was rather an attempt for Manatee County to "clean its own house."
Whether or not anyone from Mallaranny LLC tried to influence county officials, the attention now has shifted to Jeremy Croteau getting a special permit from the county to host the Sarasota Medieval Fair. Ousley said Jeremy Croteau has applied for the special permit, even though he disputes whether he needs it, and has not heard back from the county. Ousley said the state's Right to Farm act specifies no special permit is needed for a farm to host an agritourism event.
She emphasized, "We are working with the county."
Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes did not return requests for comment about the situation. He had sent an earlier email to commissioners that said Mallaranny LLC would be doing so at its own risk if it held an event without the proper permitting. Hopes noted that if the event is held, Manatee County would explore its legal options and "respond accordingly."
For residents of the county, it would be nice to have some closure in all this before the Sarasota Medieval Fair begins. Put a bow on the investigation and announce the findings. If Jeremy Croteau and Mallaranny LLC has nothing to do with the situation, and has applied for the special permit, then let's all celebrate the Sarasota Medieval Fair and root for its success.
On the other hand, if we find some back-room deals were being made to prepare the land for the event, then announce that as well and take appropriate action.
We hear our county officials say they believe in transparency.
Here is their chance.
(For information or tickets for the Sarasota Medieval Fair, go to www.SarasotaMedievalFair.com)