As you drive toward the new Lakewood Ranch Library from a half mile away, it is hard not to be impressed with the structure that towers over the surrounding homes in the area.
On one side of the two-story building is an exterior stairwell that gives texture to what could be considered a rectangular box.
But when paired with the landscape, its power is in its enormity, which assigns a certain importance to it.
For Manatee County taxpayers, it's kind of like Italian Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's painting of a basket of fruit that was completed in 1599 and which still hangs in Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. Even though it's just some apples and grapes, the beauty is in its simplicity. It is the world as we see it.
Now Lakewood Ranch residents can look at their very own "box."
At the new library's grand opening on Jan. 12, Willis Smith Construction CEO Dave Sessions was all smiles as he walked through the 25,000-square-foot first floor.
Willis Smith combined with Fawley Bryant Architecture to bring the residents' vision to reality, at a price. In this case the price ended up being $17,677,542.
It's not exactly a Publix BOGO, but if you are an area resident who has been aching for a Lakewood Ranch-area branch of the county's library system, that amount seems like a bargain. After all, the No. 1 master-planned, multi-generational community in the nation deserves more than a portable unit for a library branch.
"If you look at the design, it is a fairly simple structure," Sessions said. "We came up with a real good balance between being functional and attractive."
Sessions stressed that Fawley Bryant was the driving force behind the design.
"They, ultimately, came up with this concept," Sessions said. "They designed what each space will do and how those spaces inter-relate."
If the library's budget had been blown up further because architects and builders wanted to put their personal stamp on it and produce a landmark, the project could have been scrapped.
"There was no waste of taxpayer dollars," Sessions said.
As the cost of the library escalated over the years, tensions grew in the Commission of whether the project was too grandiose.
In 2018, $5.14 million was allocated by commissioners for a new library branch in Lakewood Ranch. That amount soared to $10 million a year later when commissioners approved a change to the infrastructure sales tax allocation. The cost spiked again in 2020 when commissioners approved a plan for a second floor. The budget went to $14.9 million.
In June 2021, another rise in the project was set at $19.9 million. Then in September of that year, commissioners proposed a $14.9 million budget. A month later, commissioners agreed to a budget of $17.1 million. It was completed at $17.7 million.
"It started as a $10 million fixed commitment," Sessions said as he looked through some books on a shelf. "But the county understood all the other elements. Several different concepts were floated around, and there was a lot of good thinking."
Moving to a two-story structure might turn the project from ordinary to masterpiece. District 5 Commissioner Ray Turner told the assembled crowd at the grand opening that the county had to "uncover the community's needs" when it comes to finishing the 25,000-square-foot second floor.
Turner called the library "a high-tech spectacular community center" and it will fit that description more so if that second floor area fills the need for more room to accommodate groups and clubs. This area has lacked that space since Lakewood Ranch was formed 30 years ago.
"What a journey this has been," said Sue Ann Miller, the president of the Friends of the Lakewood Ranch Library. "This library is everything we hoped for and more."
While Miller spoke, former District 5 Commissioner Vanessa Baugh was tucked behind the estimated 500 people who came to tour the facility. Baugh resigned from the Commission in June due to family concerns, and it appeared it might rob her of enjoying a very special project that she had championed for years.
Miller wasn't about to let that happen.
"We have to thank past District 5 Commissioner Vanessa Baugh," Miller told the crowd. "Your persistence and commitment made this happen."
Baugh nodded and smiled after the recognition. She also received a shout-out from Turner, who said. "Vanessa Baugh should be standing here because I didn't have very much to do with this."
When it came time to cut the ribbon, Baugh was handed the big scissors.
After the speeches, the crowd surged forward to squeeze through the front doors to tour the facility. My own thoughts of my early life and libraries were that they bored me to tears and it was a good place to avoid. In today's world of cell phones and personal computers, I often wondered why libraries were a needed commodity.
One tour through the Lakewood Ranch Library put those antiquated thoughts to rest.
I went through the workshop, and the recording studio, and the teen area, the outdoors play area, the kids library, the book nook, and the reading room. Aloha Ukulele was giving tips and lessons on that group's favorite instrument, and people were on the roof of the second floor stretching out in a yoga class.
In one room was a collection of art that was featured in Manatee County's 2024 calendar. Miss November is District 2 Commissioner Amanda Ballard, whose sketching of a cow, tomatoes and plants is titled "Heritage Farmscape. Ballard posed with her work along with the other 11 artists and Turner. Among the pieces was a life-sized mixed media representation of the late "Snooty," who graced Bishop Museum of Science and Nature's Parker Manatee Aquarium and lived to be 69. Danielle Glaysher of Inspired Art Solutions created the piece.
Judging by the smiles of people who made their way past the artwork, it should be a regular feature at the new library.
So if you have avoided libraries for years, take the plunge and check it out. It's our library. You might find something you like.
Or you could look up a biography on Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.
Someone pass me an apple.