Southwest Florida continues to show strength in population gains and development growth, signs of a steadily improving economy as new businesses arrive and the unemployment rate falls.
Smart growth is the new buzzword in the aftermath of the hard lessons learned from the real estate market collapse and recession. Infrastructure improvements are vital as commercial and housing developments are built.
To that end, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc. won approval for a vast project covering 5,500 acres south of University Parkway in Sarasota County with renewed commitments to extend major arterials and a bonus transportation pledge -- vows that rightfully earned accolades.
The Villages of Lakewood Ranch South, as the project is titled, will hold 5,100 residential units, a pair of commercial village centers and a new elementary school. With a build-out date two decades away, this will be slow growth, too.
That large-scale development requires a major transportation network to serve business and residents. Not only did SMR once again pledge to pay for extending Lakewood Ranch Boulevard and Lorraine Road south to Fruitville Road, the development company also committed $7.5 million to either build an overpass across Interstate 75 from Lakewood Ranch Boulevard to Cattlemen Road or an extension of Iona Road from Palmer Boulevard to Fruitville Road.
An official salute
"For a private entity to step up above and beyond what they are required to do can't be understated." So stated Kevin Cooper, vice president of public policy at the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, during a Sarasota County commission meeting in which officials unanimously approved SMR's amendments to a previous plan.
One of the primary objections that development opponents have expressed in the past is the burden on current taxpayers for the cost of infrastructure that new construction requires. SMR also pledged the project would be fiscally neutral with property taxes from the development covering those costs.
And the company will be updating its neutral report at the completion of each phase of the development if there are major changes in government revenue projections.
The third laudable component of this project is SMR's promise to build 2,000 affordable housing units out of the 5,100 in the overall plan. Situated between two large employment centers -- the Lakewood Ranch Corporate Park and the International Trade Center -- the Villages of Lakewood Ranch South will be a boon to working families.
Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson seemed to express surprise at the large number of affordable housing units at last week's meeting, asking SMR vice president of strategic affairs Todd Pokrywa why so many.
"We believe there is a strong market to provide this housing," he replied after noting the nearby job centers.
SMR is also pursuing a "live, work, play" philosophy with a Manatee County project in the newest portion of the company's master planned community of Lakewood Ranch, among the top 10 best-selling such developments in the nation.
Lakewood Centre North, on 245 acres south of State Route 64 and east of Lakewood Ranch Boulevard, is a mixed-use project of residential, commercial and office space that is designed to avoid traffic problems. This, too, would avoid the surburban sprawl that taxes our infrastructure.
SMR's road fortification commitments will ease the congestion at University Parkway and I-75, a key corridor in line for a large-scale $60 million state improvement project.
Schroeder-Manatee Ranch has proven once again to be a commendable corporate citizen interested in building community alongside profit.