Eastword column: Benderson and Schroeder-Manatee Ranch change the residential and business landscape

November 18, 2012 

After several months of reporting by Herald reporters Nick Williams and Josh Salman, the Herald today starts a three-part series looking at the impact of Lakewood Ranch and Benderson Development Company on the Manatee-Sarasota area.

Part two publishes Monday, and part three on Tuesday.

The headquarters of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, developer of Lakewood Ranch, and Benderson Development Company, developer of shopping centers, are just a few miles apart off University Parkway in southern Manatee County.

There are similarities in the companies. Both are lean, innovative, visionary. They break the mold. And they both have a regional impact.

SMR, of course, has the longer track record in Manatee County, dating back more than a century when it was a cattle and farming operation with a huge amount of land.

Benderson is a much more recent arrival, relocating here from Buffalo, N.Y.

In a relatively short time, Benderson has become the big mover and shaker in Manatee-Sarasota's shopping center universe. It has pumped new life into old, decaying shopping centers, and built dynamic, new shopping districts.

Recently, Benderson broke ground on what will become the single largest mall in Manatee-Sarasota, near the county line off Interstate 75.

Not only that, Benderson is planning workforce housing, office space, and hotels there, located near a giant man-made lake that is making a name for itself as a competitive rowing center. Without Benderson's arrival, it's doubtful that 400-acre lake would have become anything other than a dredge site where soil was removed to construct I-75.

That is an example of visionary thinking.

Something else the two companies did was seize on the opening of

I-75 as a game changer, a new main street running through Manatee-Sarasota. Without it, what SMR and Benderson have done would have been impossible.

Lakewood Ranch, of course, has bloomed since the mid-1990s into a community with thousands of homes and residents, and is also home to hundreds of retail businesses and offices. It has a hospital, schools, and college campuses. It is also the ninth-best-selling residential community in the United States.

But work at the 50-square-mile community is far from done. There is much growth and development to be done.

The innovation continues with the recent addition of Premier Sports Campus, 70 acres of fields for outdoor sports that can operate day and night.

Eventually there will be an indoor athletic facility as well, in addition to more hotels to accommodate visitors.

Until the 1990s, the place to "live, work, play," the motto of Lakewood Ranch, was largely the province of coastal areas, or west Manatee. It was even designed that way in county planning documents.

But the development of Lakewood Ranch has shifted the paradigm.

In a sense, Benderson and SMR are rivals, but respectful rivals.

At a Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance meeting last week, SMR CEO Rex Jensen said he was "pulling in his horns'' on retail development for a while, acknowledging the development of Benderson's massive mall.

Jensen called the mall an asset to the entire community, understanding that it will draw his residents and those from all over Manatee-Sarasota.

Starting in 2014, SMR is expects to start work on thousands of new homes on its Sarasota County property.

That will be SMR's first significant residential development in Sarasota County, and a test case for how that county would like to see itself look like in 2050.

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

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