MANATEE -- A favored playground for manatees during the winter, Bowlees Creek brings a touch of the wild to the neighborhoods in south Manatee County.
The little creek meanders south through residential areas, through business districts, even flowing under congested U.S. Highway 41 before emptying into Sarasota Bay.
If the county commission approves, it will also provide the scenery for a new development of 225 multi-family units and a 126-bed assisted-living center.
A Sarasota developer's proposal has brought attention to the area, parts of which visibly deteriorated during the recession, but now may be reviving as the economy recovers.
Some neighbors expressed dismay at plans for the project, wondering if it might compromise the casually elegant lifestyle along the creek, which features herds of wild manatees to watch during the winter months, and a rich assortment of other wildlife.
Others had no complaint.
"It seems like it'd take a lot," said Jim Skoglund, 70, a retiree who lives at Trailer Estates community, across the street from where developer Brian Anderson hopes to put the project near the intersection of 69th Avenue West and 14th Street West.
"Are they going high?" Skoglund wanted to know. "I guess it blocks the view; when you live across the street, you can't see anything; so, that's why people like it here, it's wide open and a friendly place."
Karen Weaver, 66, a snowbird from Michigan who also resides at Trailer Estates, was sunbathing on a little beach at the mouth of the creek. She sat up to say the development plan "doesn't bother me any."
Anderson intends to seek permission from the county this spring for the 19-acre project, he said.
"The upside about this project is that the ALF component adds a kinder and gentler use along 69th Avenue," explained Anderson last week. "It's a good use for the area, the area needs one, and it's an asset for the community."
The housing units would entail
one-, two- and three-bedrooms, with somewhat reduced square footage, Anderson said.
Amenities would include recreation facilities, workout room, swimming pool and clubhouse. The assisted living center would offer its own clubhouse, pool and a memory care facility, Anderson said.
The project would overlook the creek, whose tributaries start near 53rd Avenue, and drain a large urban area, according to Charlie Hunsicker, the county's director of natural resources. Surprisingly, the waterway is still in reasonably good ecological health, he said.
Nearby is a vibrant, green golf course at the Sara Bay Country Club. Blooming pink bougainvillea and citrus trees heavy with fruit grace residential yards. Also fixtures in many yards are canoes, jet-skis, inner tubes, floats, rafts, kayaks and boats of every description.
Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport is just to the south.
The total cost of the planned development has been estimated at $50 million or more, said Anderson, who is a general partner in Gulfside Homes Inc. of Sarasota.
"We're emphasizing the scope of the project and its location, and the amount of work it'll bring to Manatee County," said Anderson. "And the tax benefit along with it will be tremendous."
The project will be good for the area because it may help what he called "transitional property" along U.S. 41, he said.
Some of the businesspeople in the neighborhood Friday recalled the economic boost another development, Hawks Harbor, provided when it was built.
"It's good for business, you know," said Kirk Walter, who for 17 years has operated Capt. Kirk's Barber Shop, 6836 14th St. W. "We were here before Hawks Harbor. It's helped the area out."
Manatee County Commissioner Robin DiSabatino declined comment on the development itself, as she expected to vote on it at some point, but was encouraged in general by the uptick in business activity in her district.
"Everything going on in south county is really improving the district," she said. "We see so many positives from USF all the way up. It's just wonderful to see things really picking up, businesses going in."
Realtor Mike Holderness, who grew up in the area and recalls swimming in local lakes as a kid, wasn't sure how he felt about the development plans. He wondered if it would create more car traffic than the area could tolerate comfortably.
He knows he lives in a special place: For years, he has resided either directly on Bowlees Creek, or somewhere near it. He's had the pleasure of viewing up to 50 manatees congregating in the water, as if they're enjoying a big hot tub party, he said.
Sometimes, manatees become "stuck" in the creek when the tide goes out, he said, adding that DiSabatino is checking to see if the creek needs dredging again.
"In the summertime its OK because tides are higher; in winter, they're 2-3 feet lower, and if they try to come in when tide's out, they can't get back out," Holderness said.
Since 2006, there have been three manatee rescues at Bowlees Creek, one in which the animal was hurt by a boat; and two 2010 strandings connected to cold stress, said Kevin Baxter, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Sometimes the big mammals, some of which tip the scales at 3,500 pounds, appear to be in distress when they're really just lying on the water's surface asleep, said John Reynolds of Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.
"How lucky people who live here are," Reynolds said. "They can enjoy the benefits of a wonderful small city, but outside their backdoors, they've got wonderful opportunities to see wildlife."
"And if we can somehow balance our activities with the needs of wildlife, we can keep those animals around a long time."
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.com.