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Manatee County staff and residents connect at Neighborhood Summit

About 35 residents attend the Manatee County Neighborhood Summit at the Lakewood Ranch Library on Feb. 23.
About 35 residents attend the Manatee County Neighborhood Summit at the Lakewood Ranch Library on Feb. 23.
Photo by Lesley Dwyer
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There’s a vacant lot in Arlene Merriman’s neighborhood. 

Merriman is the chairperson of the Whisper Bend Homeowners Association’s Community Improvement Committee. 

She attended the Manatee County Neighborhood Summit to see if there was a grant that could help the HOA turn the vacant lot into something the community, which is off Linger Lodge Road, can enjoy. Merriman also wanted to meet the county’s staff members in person.

“I want to put a face to a name,” she said. “I like that personal connection.” 

The summit was held Feb. 23 at the Lakewood Ranch Library to put residents and staff from different departments in one room together to provide easy access for residents.

“Transparency is a challenge because if we’re not communicating well, it feels like we’re hiding things,” Commissioner Ray Turner told residents. “(The summit) is a way to create better transparency for constituents. We don’t want you guys to feel like you don’t know what’s going on.” 

The three-hour event began with a half-hour of networking and followed with a series of presentations from county staff members and their partners. 

Event partners included the Friendly City Foundation, which helps cultivate business opportunities, and the UF IFAS Extension, which offers a community garden program.

Commissioner Ray Turner speaks with Central Park resident Deb Pierce after the Manatee County Neighborhood Summit.
Photo by Lesley Dwyer

Central Park resident Deb Pierce said she enjoyed learning about the community gardens and plans for transportation but was hoping the summit would have been a more interactive forum. 

A few minutes were allotted for questions after each presentation, and Turner kept to his word and hung around after to speak with residents about any concerns they had. 

Only Pierce approached him. She wanted to know if he supports Project 2025, a conservative agenda spearheaded by the Heritage Foundation of Washington, D.C., to make widespread changes to federal policies that would align with the political right.

“He wasn’t familiar with it,” Pierce said. “But he also said he has a lot of big fish to fry here in the county, and I understand that.”

The newly revamped Citizens Academy is one fish that’s already been fried and was presented to residents. It’s a long-term, project-based program that partners county staff members with community leaders to solve community issues. The program is taught in three sessions and focuses on action items and goals as they relate to a specific project. Residents submit their idea for a project to be considered for the class. The group-based learning environment allows different communities to see the work others are doing and to brainstorm ideas together. 

The Citizens Academy is a Neighborhood Connections programs. Neighborhood Connections manages community grants.

“For the last couple of years, we’ve had $65,000 to give to neighborhoods, which can go quickly,” Neighborhood Services Coordinator Makayla Lindecamp said. “This year, we have $165,000, so we want to see every neighborhood that has a project apply.” 

Lindecamp said the Manatee County Commission approved an additional $100,000 to help the beautification program grow. Merriman wanted to know if a neighborhood can apply for more than one grant. Lindecamp said it can. Neighborhoods are eligible to receive one grant per fiscal year.

Whisper Bend's Arlene Merriman and Greenbrook's Kathleen Cramer, the executive director of Turning Points, network at the Manatee County Neighborhood Summit.
Photo by Lesley Dwyer

In addition to Merriman finding a way to help the HOA pay to fix up the vacant lot, she learned how to get a free bench for it, too. 

Whitfield resident Carole Martin told the group how her community collected 500 pounds of recyclables in four months to get an eco-friendly bench for one of the common areas.

“It used to be 500 pounds,” Martin said. “Now it’s 1,000 pounds of plastic, and you have one year to collect that much. It’s really not as hard as you think.”

Trex, an outdoor furniture company, offers the NexTrex Recycling Challenge Program. The company provides three free bins to fill with recyclables and uses Winn Dixie and Kohl’s as drop-off locations. 

More information can be found at NexTrex. 

Whitfield residents filled their recycle bins quicker by collecting at their workplaces. Through trial and error, Martin said using a luggage scale is the easiest method to weigh a bulky bag of recyclables.



Lesley Dwyer

Lesley Dwyer is a staff writer for East County and a graduate of the University of South Florida. After earning a bachelor’s degree in professional and technical writing, she freelanced for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Lesley has lived in the Sarasota area for over 25 years.

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