In delivering a review of Manatee County government's "How Will We Grow?" community visioning project last week, Urban Land Institute experts applauded the county's detailed work and found all three alternatives to growth viable. The outside panel interviewed more than 80 community leaders in a broad range of public and private sectors while analyzing the county's conclusions.
This thorough review by outside land-use experts validates the county's report and expands the scope of the project with recommendations -- some of which, though, are already in the works to varying degrees.
Here's our take on several aspects of the ULI report:
n When consultants informed Manatee County commissioners that this area could be branded as "the sports training capital of America," the idea did not come as a surprise. The region is well positioned to lay claim to that marketing label.
Manatee County's robust sports industry continues to grow, led by IMG Academy's massive campus expansion starting this month, the swift success of the Premier Sports Complex in Lakewood Ranch in attracting huge events, and the high hopes for the international aquatic center under construction at Sarasota's Nathan Benderson Park, just south of Manatee.
Recognizing sports performance as a key economic driver, Manatee's Economic Development Corp. reported to commissioners last August that the nine main sectors in the industry employ almost 2,000 workers in 156 businesses in the county.
Earlier in the year, the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau created an independent county sports commission to promote the industry.
The ULI report not only highlighted this "great asset," it recommended expanding the brand to include sports medicine and recruiting rehabilitation and performance enhancement medical practices -- a worthy pursuit.
n The public and private colleges and universities in Manatee and Sarasota counties have scheduled an education summit in June to create an atmosphere of greater cooperation between schools to better serve students, the community and the region's economy and prosperity. One goal is to open access so students from one school can attend classes at another.
The ULI panel recommends the county establish partnerships with the school system and higher education institutions to improve the knowledge and skills vital to workforce development, first investing in detailed market studies to identify the best strategies for investment. County government may want to attend that June retreat of college leaders as a first step.
n "How Will We Grow?" divides the county into four sectors roughly bordered by State Route 64 and Interstate 75: Parrish and Lakewood Ranch share East Manatee; Port Manatee/Palmetto and Southwest/Bradenton share the west.
Of the three growth scenarios the project cites, alternative one is the "stay the course" option with minor tweaks to the comprehensive plan and continued sprawl, low densities and low development for the most part -- an undesirable pattern.
Alternative three encourages denser growth and taller buildings in four designated "activity centers" -- Port Manatee, Parrish, Lakewood Ranch and Southwest County, particularly the U.S. 41 corridor.
Alternative two puts a sharp focus on one of the county's most distressed area -- the Southwest, where redevelopment is essential to this southern gateway into the county. ULI experts recommend targeted investment in this sector and immediate action to expand the county's two community redevelopment agencies in the area in order to capture additional tax revenue brought by rising property values.
While some neighborhoods remain vibrant, blight impairs others and limits growth opportunities. The ULI report describes the area's "weak urban character" as a challenge to growth, already widely understood in the community. Public investments in infrastructure and changes in land use are essential to spur private redevelopment projects.
The institute urged the county to consider U.S. 41 "the spine" of the area where "greenway links" and improved transportation options -- with pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly options -- would be beneficial. This Editorial Board has endorsed a makeover for this key corridor, with landscaped medians protecting turn lanes and eliminating the hazardous wide open lane that compromises public safety. The beautification would also serve to encourage private investment and growth.
County staff are continuing to present public forums to solicit input into these issues with 10 more on tap through the beginning of May. In June, county commissioners will ponder all the recommendations before rendering a decision on the direction for growth in unincorporated Manatee County.
We hope that direction is a new one, more sustainable than sprawl and one that ultimately improves the community's quality of life and economic prosperity.