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Nonprofit races to meet goal to fund collections for new Lakewood Ranch library

The Friends of Lakewood Ranch Library, with Sue Ann Miller at the helm, moves forward in its fundraising efforts to fill the shelves of the new Lakewood Ranch Library.

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  • | 8:00 a.m. February 16, 2023
Sue Ann Miller grew up in Philadelphia and recalls her mother taking her and her sister to the historic Chestnut Hill Library.
Sue Ann Miller grew up in Philadelphia and recalls her mother taking her and her sister to the historic Chestnut Hill Library.
Photo by Harry Sayer
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Last summer, with the construction of the new Lakewood Ranch Library well underway, Tammy Parrott, Manatee County’s library services manager, made a discovery that posed what at first seemed an insurmountable challenge.

The shelves had room for more 21,000 more books than had been budgeted. She was going to need more money to fill those shelves — $410,000 more. Parrott knew the county government would not increase the $580,000 it had committed for books. She didn’t panic, though. The library would simply have to open with empty shelf space — no crime there — and it would get filled up over time. 

Enter the Friends of Lakewood Ranch Library, a nonprofit formed in 2017 when it appeared that the community would finally get the library for which it had long pushed. 

One day last August, Parrott was in her office talking with the Friends’ president, Sue Ann Miller, when she offhandedly mentioned that she needed about $400,000 to cover the books shortfall. “I could see right away from the look on her face that she saw that as a challenge,” Parrott recalls. “I didn’t even have to ask her.”

“The number was a bit of a shock,” Miller says. “We had originally planned to raise $65,000 by the time the library opened. But I told her, ‘I’m positive we can do this.’”

Miller consulted with several board members, who said they were up to the task. In September, the Friends launched a campaign called Fill the Shelves. Shortly after came a big win: The Manatee Library Foundation committed $200,000. But the contribution came with a catch: It was a matching grant, so the Friends would need to raise an additional $200,000 to get it.

Sue Ann Miller with Tammy Parrott, Manatee County’s library services manager, and Lyn Begraft, assistant library services assistant manager.
Photo by Harry Sayer

During an interview in December, Miller said that her group had reached the halfway point of that goal and fully expected to meet it by the April 27 target date. At the time, nearly all the money had come via grants: $50,000 from the Bishop-Parker Foundation, $20,000 each from the Community Foundation of Sarasota County and the Friends group itself, among others. The nonprofit also planned to take its appeal to residents by sending out a letter to select ZIP codes seeking contributions.

The $410,000 is earmarked for children’s books, multicultural and bilingual books, and large-print materials.

In many respects, Sue Ann Miller is uniquely suited to leading the Friends of Lakewood Ranch Library, which has more than 100 members. She grew up in Philadelphia and recalls her mother taking her and her sister to the historic Chestnut Hill Library. Miller earned a doctorate in reading education from Lehigh University. She had a long career as an educator, starting as a classroom teacher, and ending up as a supervisor of reading for several school districts in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Miller retired and moved to Lakewood Ranch in 2016, because “it’s warmer here,” she says. “I had a heart transplant in 2002 and my cardiologist said that transplanted organs don’t like cold weather. I visited several friends on the west coast of Florida and thought Lakewood Ranch was a good place to be.”

Eager to volunteer, she attended a few civic meetings and got interested in an organization that was forming to support and advocate for the new library. (Each of the seven Manatee libraries has its own Friends group.) Miller didn’t set out to become president. “Nobody else wanted the position,” she says. “Basically, it came down to if I wanted to see this happen, I had to take on the presidency.”

Miller had extensive skills as an educator and administrator, but no experience in leading a nonprofit, let alone fundraising. “I still have the book ‘How to Form a Nonprofit Corporation’ on my bookshelf,” she says. In 2021, when the Manatee County Commission was wavering on the cost of building the library, the Friends started an advocacy initiative, sending out emails to residents urging them to contact their commissioners and convey support for the project. 

It worked. “On the day of the groundbreaking we had tears in our eyes,” Miller says of the day in December 2021 when ceremonial shovels met dirt.

Then came the $410,000 challenge. Miller called upon three Friends’ board members — Rhonda Leiberick, Melissa Rice and Janet Allen — to run Fill the Shelves. They received invaluable consulting help from Sue Seiter, the retired executive director of the Library Foundation for Sarasota County.

When the Lakewood Ranch Library opens, it will encompass 25,000 square feet on one floor. The building’s second floor will be finished later; its use has yet to be determined. The library will have a dedicated quiet room; a maker space where people can use 3D printers, learn how to sew and do other hands-on endeavors; a sound room where people can record podcasts; a drive-up window to pick up books (the first in the county); and a used bookstore. 

Oh — and its shelves will be filled with books.

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