By Dale White, Staff Reporter, Sarasota Herald Tribune, Thursday March 22, 2019
‘State of the Ranch’ address offers detailed progress report — with a little history lesson as well.
LAKEWOOD RANCH — When developer Rex Jensen delivers a talk about Lakewood Ranch, the expanding community straddling the Sarasota-Manatee county line, he covers a lot of ground.
Roads, parks, schools, colleges, businesses, clubs, churches, medical care, medical research, entertainment, affordable housing — the list of topics seems endless.
On Wednesday, the president and chief executive officer of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, the family-owned firm that launched Lakewood Ranch 25 years ago, presented his “State of the Ranch” address to the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance. A sold-out audience of more than 300 alliance members and guests got a detailed progress report, with a little history lesson as well.
Jensen praised the Uihlein family of Milwaukee, who acquired what is now a 50-square-mile area nearly a century ago. For most of their ownership, they used the land for enterprises that included timber, cattle, row crops, citrus and shell mining. They still retain agricultural interests, which Jensen also oversees. (Their property, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, takes its name from its original owner, John Schroeder.)
Since the 1990s, however, SMR has become best known for its residential and commercial development.
So well known, in fact, Lakewood Ranch ranks as “the fastest selling, multi-generational community in the United States,” Jensen said.
To assist his audience in understanding the size of the more than 31,000-acre community that is still under construction and expanding, Jensen demonstrated where it appears on a NASA satellite photo of Florida. “You can see it from space,” he noted.
By the numbers
The master-planned community Lakewood Ranch currently features:
• 14,731 households
• A population of 35,547, with an average age of 47
• Approvals for 32,351 homes (1,482 were sold in 2018)
• An average household income of $123,956
• Five public schools and 10 private schools and colleges
• 1,571 businesses employing 16,362
• 285 shops and restaurants
• Entitlements for 14.4 million square feet of business uses, of which 5.6 million is built
Sources: Lakewood Ranch Commercial, Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance.
The cities of Sarasota, Bradenton, Palmetto and Venice could fit within SMR’s current and sold properties, with “several thousand acres left over,” Jensen said.
When the Uihleins decided to engage in real estate development, they could have taken a “fragmented” approach that accounts for how many areas west of Interstate 75 came about — with no overall vision. Instead, they preferred to be “very patient, very long term.”
As a result, “the most dominant property in southwest Florida” is an evolving, diverse community, Jensen said.
He described two possible methods of creating real estate.
“Creating a project” is two-dimensional thinking, yielding results that are “flat as a tabletop,” Jensen said.
“Creating a community,” however, comes with a third dimension — “a social fabric.”
To Jensen, Lakewood Ranch is not just buildings. It is people — parents and children who support the schools, active seniors who join clubs, churchgoers of many denominations, walkers and joggers on 150 miles of multi-surface trails and business owners and operators.
The alliance is part of the “social fabric,” Jensen told its members. He stressed how their networking, sharing of best practices and support for each other contributes to the overall sense of community. “You turn the business square into the business cube.”
Among other topics, Jensen emphasized:
Affordable housing. The 5,000-home Waterside development that SMR is undertaking on its Sarasota County property is an opportunity to provide about 2,000 homes that should be priced for the area’s workforce, Jensen said. Too many employees of Lakewood Ranch businesses cannot afford to reside in the same community as their workplaces, Jensen said.
Roads. The Lakewood Ranch Stewardship District, a special tax district that spans much of the development, is financing the construction of 28 miles of roads — nine miles in Sarasota County and 19 in Manatee County. A southward extension of Lakewood Ranch Boulevard to Fruitville Road, creating another north-south alternative to Interstate 75, is expected to be completed in 2020.
Premier Sports Campus. SMR sold the complex of athletic fields to Manatee County, which recently acquired additional land there for more sports facilities, a public library and a government services center. Jensen said having the county’s parks department and tourism bureau take over the operation proved to be a good move. He jokingly added that he regarded “government services center” to be “a contradiction in terms.”
Brain Health Initiative. Massachusetts General Hospital, a teaching hospital for Harvard Medical School, wants to create the Academy for Brain Health and Performance in Lakewood Ranch. The state-of-the-art research center will work to treat and prevent autism, dementia, strokes, Parkinson’s disease and other brain-related conditions. It will be located in the 305-acre area that SMR designated as its CORE (Collaboration Opportunities for Research and Exploration), where it wants to attract world-class research facilities. Supporters have launched a $1.6 million fundraising campaign to create the academy.
Lakewood Ranch Community Fund. While on the subject of philanthropy, Jensen made a pitch for the fund that has given more than $1.3 million in donations to more than 100 nonprofit causes since it was launched in 2000.
Future expansion. Neal Communities recently purchased 450 acres off Fruitville Road and east of Interstate 75 in Sarasota County. The home builder intends to add the 900 homes and retail center built there to Lakewood Ranch.
SMR has acquired 2,300 acres adjoining its property in Manatee County from Jay Taylor, whose family formerly owned and operated a tomato packing house in Palmetto that still bears their name. Jensen said SMR will move its sod farm there and get the land added to the Stewardship District. Eventually, SMR will discuss development options for that agricultural land with county officials.