MANATEE -- When Candice McElyea moved to Lakewood Ranch 10 years ago, the integration of parks and trails into the community was one of the main attractions for her family.
McElyea, along with her husband and two children, use East Manatee parks three to five times a week. With trails, a dog park and a skate park, Lakewood Ranch's Greenbrook Adventure Park is a family favorite.
"The way it is designed with open space, lakes, trails, I think it's so well done," McElyea said. "You can use it as a passive park if you want to ride a bike or jog, or use it for sports."
While not a county park, Greenbrook Adventure Park, in McElyea's mind, should be a model as Manatee County looks to parks in the future since it has "a little bit of everything," she said.
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Manatee County is preparing to do a master plan for future parks, recreation and open spaces. The county received five proposals Friday from organizations "to provide professional parks and recreation planning services to prepare a new parks master plan for the county," according to the request for proposals.
"It is going to be an exciting time," said Charlie Hunsicker, county Parks and Natural Resources Department director. "We can look to the next five to 10 years as an exciting time to build what we are known for -- and that is quality facilities."
The development of the Manatee County parks, recreation and open spaces master plan will be the "first modern effort in the last 20 years," Hunsicker said, adding the county has been relying on its comprehensive plan and five-year capital improvement program.
The county hasn't built a major recreational facility since Lakewood Ranch High School opened, and it's been more than 25 years since a pool has been constructed.
"We are certainly behind our growth curve in providing recreation in an active format to Manatee County," Hunsicker said. "With our upturn in our economy and revitalization of new residents coming into the area, a solid footing of impact fee collection forecast, we are now prepared to chart our future. We reached a point where we are asking fundamental questions that became more and more difficult to answer, such as where should a new park be built, given the revenues to make that possible."
A 2013 study conducted by the Urban Land Institute about Manatee County suggested "a comprehensive plan for open space and greenways that effectively connect and link with roadways, parks, culture, shopping and business districts, should be a significant component of 'How Will We Grow?' "
The reports recommended developing a parks master plan. According to the RFP, the plan should:
Consider past plans and studies.
Assess needs and recommend priorities.
Recommend changes to existing parks/programs to meet changing/future demographic needs.
Recommend capital and operational funding sources and cost estimates of recommended improvements.
Guide staff, advisory boards and county commission.
The five proposals submitted are from Sand County Studios in Smyrna, Ga.; AECOM in Orlando; Kimley-Horn and Associates Inc. in Sarasota; Tindale Oliver in Orlando; and Stantec in Sarasota.
"The development of a parks master plan is a crucial component in improving quality of life for our community," according to the RFP. "Manatee County recognizes that communities that continuously rank in the top 'best places to live' have invested significantly in parks and recreational assets. The tremendous return on investment for communities with great parks and recreational opportunities has been known for years. This return includes tourism, business investment, reduced crime and many other positives that improve the quality of life."
Hunsicker said the county is "well behind the curve" when it comes to swimming pools and trails, and "slightly behind the curve" when it comes to sports fields.
"During these last seven to eight years, we have had to make choices for spending on much higher priorities such as public safety over alternative recreation," he said.
Since the parks master plan identifies long-term targets and goals likely to exceed projected revenues, Hunsicker said, they will need to prioritize by matrixes identified by the plan. Cost, public necessity and proximity to other available services are among those, Hunsicker said.
"We will then need to prioritize the most important and worthwhile recreational facilities against others and make our choices accordingly," he said. "In the last several years, coming out of our recession, we are very cognizant of the need for some major capital recreational facilities such as some version of our seasonal pool at (John) Marble to a year-round facility with lights and heating along with a new pool north of the Manatee River. There is also an ever-present and growing demand for additional soccer fields and baseball fields and pickleball courts -- and, last but not least, recreational trails."
McElyea notes population growth projected for East Manatee should be kept in mind in planning future sports fields.
"Athletics is a really big draw for people that live in Lakewood Ranch," she said. "As we grow, it will be nice to have parks grow with us."
Rubonia resident Tonia Martinez said she would like parks closer to Rubonia. Without a car, it makes it difficult to get to parks and recreational opportunities in other areas of the county.
During baseball season, Martinez travels to Buffalo Creek Park since her son plays baseball there. Martinez said the baseball field and other recreational areas in Rubonia could be better maintained.
"If they maintained the ones that they had and give added resources to the ones that need it, those are the kinds of things I can see here in Rubonia," she said. "Not everyone has transportation to get out."
A pool is needed north of the Manatee River, Martinez said.
"I'm quite sure it would be (used)," she said.
Parrish resident Lee Dean wants parks along the Manatee River, preferably with canoe/kayak launches.
"Since I believe the river and riverfront/river access is common property, these parks would give everyone some access to it," Dean said. "Since most moving into Parrish are seeking nature and peace, the more parks the better. The children certainly need some place to roam about besides the streets."
The county commission this month approved raising county impact fees, which include a park impact fee. Revenue from such a fee charged on new development can be used to build new parks and other recreational facilities. However, the dollars can't be used toward day-to-day operations and maintenance of these facilities.
In the coming year, the parks impact fee is expected to generate $1.86 million, which will increase to $2.3 million when impact fees are levied at 100 percent of the fee approved by the commission.
According to the TischlerBise impact fee study, parks improvements needed to accommodate new development will cost $23.2 million over 10 years.
Among the facilities needed to accommodate growth are swimming pools and other aquatic facilities such as a splash park, 69 acres of basic amenities at district parks, 347 acres of natural resource sites and/or improvements, 6,600 square feet of recreation buildings, 11 sports fields and 12.8 miles of trails.
By relying on impact fees, Manatee County will be less able to compete with the surrounding communities in offering quality recreational services, Hunsicker said.
For example, Sarasota County voters approved a sales tax is paid by residents and seasonal residents and tourists traveling to Sarasota County.
"We, in Manatee County, feel the same pressure and our recreation facilities are used by those same tourists and seasonal residents, yet we receive no income from those people," Hunsicker said. "As long as we are required to rely only on impact fees to support our expansion of recreation, we will be at a competitive disadvantage with our neighbors. But that will not deter our department and the Board of County Commissioners from providing the best with what we have."
A possible way to save money would be co-locating facilities so basic utilities could be shared, which can account for one-half the development costs of new facilities, Hunsicker said. The co-location of Lakewood Ranch High School and Lakewood Ranch Park is an example.
"We also have to look beyond silo-type thinking for creating just parks and instead look to partner with neighborhood services, library system for co-locational opportunities where people might gather," he said.
Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter@Claire_Aronson.