Lakewood Ranch developer Rex Jensen sees era of better relations with local government

jajones1@bradenton.comNovember 15, 2012 

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Rex Jensen, president of Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, has often bristled at county planning rules that seem to him anti-business, anti-growth or just plain nonsensical.

But Wednesday, in his annual briefing of the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance, Jensen was feeling upbeat about the state of cooperation between business and county commissions in both Manatee and Sarasota.

He never mentioned the name of old nemesis Joe McClash, with whom Jensen had storied and public battles, and McClash's defeat in his recent re-election run.

But he didn't have too. He didn't mention either Betsy Benac, McClash's opponent, or Vanessa Baugh, who won the District 5 seat formerly held by Donna Hayes, either.

"You have a business-receptive government now. It's time to work together," Jensen told a packed house at the Fete Ballroom of Polo Grill and Bar.

Almost to underscore the point, Jensen and Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker did a tag team presentation on the state of business and local government.

"We have to work with the business community and the neighborhoods. How are we going to grow?" Hunzeker asked.

A central problem now faced by local government

is its near total reliance on property taxes, the collection of which has plunged in recent years with the devastation of the still-recovering housing market.

Hunzeker suggested it may be time to look at new forms of revenue, such as user fees for libraries and parks, a sales tax, utility franchise fees and stormwater fees.

"We have an opportunity at some level to look into diversifying our revenue," Hunzeker said.

But some of the tough decisions could be costly politically to the officials who make them, he said, citing as an example building the dam on the Upper Manatee River which guaranteed a drinking water supply, but devastated the careers of the commissioners who voted for it.

Jensen took note of the massive mall planned by Benderson Development Co. for the southwest corner of University Parkway and Interstate 75.

The mall, which will be located due west of Lakewood Ranch on the opposite side of I-75, will be a benefit to the entire area, Jensen said.

SMR isn't planning any major retail initiatives pending completion of the mall, Jensen said.

SMR has plans for developing several thousand acres of its Sarasota County property, including retail and housing, just east of the Benderson mall.

SMR is in talks with Sarasota County, and the start of construction is not projected until 2014, Jensen said.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021 or tweet @jajones1

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