LAKEWOOD RANCH — Whoever came up with the idea to build a massive community east of Interstate 75 in the midst of what was mostly open pasture “must have been thrown off their horse one too many times.”
That’s how Mike Tullio, program director for the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance, jokingly put it of the once seemingly far-fetched idea of developing Lakewood Ranch.
But the idea wasn’t so crazy, and Lakewood Ranch now has 7,300 homes and 12,000 value-added jobs.
Wednesday, Rex Jensen, president and chief executive officer of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, described the gradual evolution of Lakewood Ranch, which 15 years ago sold its very first home.
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Jensen, with two of his predecessors, John Clarke and Mary Fran Carroll, sitting in the audience, said in the 1980s the owners of the 50-square-mile community became concerned about the county landfill and the wastewater treatment facility being located so close to what became Lakewood Ranch, and other ideas being floated, such as locating the airport east of Interstate 75.
That prompted study of how to do a quality development of the property — which is large enough that it could contain the geographic limits of Bradenton, Palmetto, Sarasota and Venice with room to spare — and what it should become.
It would be a major change for SMR, which already had cattle, nursery, sod, mining and citrus operations there.
A plan to develop a condo recreation resort in the 1980s called “Cypress Banks” was the first step.
Carroll, who Jensen called a “force of nature,” was brought in to steer the initial development of Lakewood Ranch, and win approval for what became Corporate Park, now the largest business park in all of Manatee and Sarasota counties.
John Clarke followed and focused Lakewood Ranch plans on economic development, and creating not just homes, but jobs, too. The idea of a recreation resort was dropped, and the idea that a community where people could live, work, play, go to church, and go to school was born.
One of the unique features of Lakewood Ranch, the Sarasota Polo Club, was developed early, and is now home not only to polo, but to events like the business “Hob Nob,” and massive soccer and Frisbee gatherings.
The starting price for the first homes at Lakewood Ranch was $89,000, hardly making them “McMansions,” Jensen said.
True to John Clarke’s vision for what Lakewood Ranch should be, the community developed two jobs for every home built, Jensen said.
In addition, the development of Lakewood Ranch helped build bridges — or more accurately, build roads — between Manatee and Sarasota, he said.
“When we work together, good things happen,” Jensen said, citing the example of Lakewood Ranch High School, born out of a partnership between SMR, county government, and the school board.
Plans on the horizon at Lakewood Ranch include Pat Neal’s Central Park, which has already recorded 41 home sales; the development of Lakewood Ranch’s Stewardship District, including property north of State Road 70 and its Villages of Lakewood Ranch South in Sarasota County; and a sports complex that will include 20 soccer fields for starters, Jensen said.
The sports complex is expected to become a draw for major sporting events, and fill thousands of hotel rooms.
After the meeting, Carroll said she is proud of what Lakewood Ranch has become, and applauded Jensen for building on what she and Clarke started.
“Rex has the best mind in two counties,” Carroll said.
Clarke said he sees the foundation at Lakewood Ranch “for a very exciting city one day.”
Wednesday’s program was held at the Fete Ballroom at Lakewood Ranch Main Street in front of hundreds of alliance members and guests. Wednesday’s meeting was full of significance in how far Lakewood Ranch has come, Jensen said.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee Editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.