MANATEE -- The international reach of IMG Academey and other burgeoning local businesses could be leveraged to brand the area as "the sports training capital of America," according to recommendations issued by a team of experts.
"You're really an international destination," said Urban Land Institute team leader Michael J. Maxwell, managing partner of Maxwell & Partners, of Miami, who presented a report Tuesday to county commissioners.
It focused on how Manatee might encourage economic growth in the future, and still protect its lush livability.
"We need to have a new look on this, and moreover, that new look is led right now by athletics," he said after his team had spent a week inspecting the area's assets and deficiencies.
Maxwell and his colleagues gushed over the area's sports training facilities, led by an expanding IMG Academies.
IMG, a Bradenton-based sports training facility, has 700 students now, but will grow to 2,200 to 2,500 in just a few years, Maxwell said. It costs between $120,000-$150,000 to send a child there for a year, he noted. Officials with IMG Academy said the campus is growing: they currently have 820 students but they expect closer to 1,300 students in the next three years. The average annual costs are lower, too. Tuition packages for boarding students range from $60,000 to $75,000.
"That's a great asset," he told commissioners at the culmination of the $125,000 study.
The county could also piggyback on the success of an international aquatic facility under construction at Sarasota's Nathan Benderson Park, he said. The park hopes to land the 2017 world rowing championships, which would attract thousands of competitors and spectators.
Other sports-related businesses, such as Premier Sports Campus at Lakewood Ranch, can reinforce Manatee County's brand as a "sports training" haven, he said.
Land Institute volunteers also recommended extending the sports brand to medicine: It suggested county officials try to attract specialized sports injury repair, rehabilitation and performance enhancement medical practices and facilities.
The county boasts many areas suitable for prime development, such as the airport-educational complex near Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, and Palma Sola Bay on its western side, said Maxwell.
"These are absolutely super resources," he said.
He also urged county officials to consider U.S. 41 "the spine" of the area, which could provide a central north-south corridor with "greenway links" and better transportation options, such as beefed-up bus lines and pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly accoutrements.
A "Central Park" sort of space anchored along U.S. 41, could "re-knit" the DeSoto Square mall into the fabric of the community, he said.
n Targeted investment in the southwest Bradenton sector, near IMG Academies and areas where Manatee Fruit Co. plans development.
n Investment in detailed market studies that could help match what is taught in schools and colleges with 21st century employment needs.
n Changing the governing boards of both the airport and the Port of Manatee to enable public/private partnerships, investment and expansion to drive economic growth.
"The time to act boldly is now," Matthews told the commission.
Commissioners were complimentary, with Betsy Benac calling the report's conclusions "musical words to my ears," and John Chappie saying, "This is very exciting stuff."
The institute is a nonprofit research and educational organization with a worldwide membership. It espouses the need for walkable, livable communities that result from smart, long-term planning, according to its press release.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.com.