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Manatee, Sarasota economic development hub planned for Lakewood Ranch

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Three influential area leaders announced plans Tuesday for a $14.4 million regional economic-development hub in eastern Lakewood Ranch, saying the facility will improve the Manatee/Sarasota area’s chances of landing and retaining jobs.

But while enthusiasm for the proposed Design and Economic Acceleration Lab, or DEAL, overflowed during its unveiling, details -- such as how it would be paid for, and by whom -- were in shorter supply.

“This really is the way to think outside of the box,” said Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who led a parade of local and state officials in praising the effort and its three primary proponents: State College of Florida, Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc. and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice.

The trio’s goal is to build a 72,000-square-foot facility on University Parkway near the road’s eastern terminus in Manatee County. Conceptual plans show a three-story structure with an auditorium, several classrooms, a business incubator laboratory and office space for various agencies, including the two counties’ economic development arms.

SMR would develop the facility, with the college brokering and operating it, and the foundation sponsoring workforce development. The backers say the hub could be operating within 18 months, and eventually could be expanded to cover all 369 acres that SMR is reserving for the effort.

“These 300 acres, I believe, will pay dividend after dividend after dividend for this community,” said SMR president Rex Jensen.

The proposed DEAL center, proponents contend, would unify the region’s now-fragmented economic development efforts by housing key players in one place. It also would act as a “one-stop shop” for companies looking to expand or relocate anywhere within the two-county region as the economy strengthens, supporters said.

“It’s the right solution at the right time,” said Ron Allen, chairman of SCF’s board of trustees.

The concept also has the backing of U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, state Sens. Mike Bennett and Nancy Detert, state Rep. Greg Steube, both county administrators and the leaders of each county’s economic development agency.

The last two -- Beth Bender of Manatee’s Economic Development Council and David Sessions, Sarasota’s Economic Development Corp. chairman -- walked arm-in-arm to the podium in a symbolic gesture of their support during the launch ceremony, which was held under a tent perched in the University Parkway median that straddles the county line.

But neither of their economic development boards has discussed or formally voted on the concept, which rapidly developed in private talks among SCF, SMR and foundation officials over several weeks. Nor have those agencies’ boards agreed to participate in the project or to have offices in the proposed hub.

“I’m pretty excited about having a discussion with my board in February about exploring the possibility,” Sessions said.

The hub’s financing also is unsettled.

Supporters said they plan to seek private funding, including from the Venice foundation. Carroll said the effort had the support of her and Gov. Rick Scott because “it requires zero government dollars.”

But state money still could be called upon: SCF President Lars Hafner, who originated the DEAL concept, said his college “is ready” to help finance construction by using its authority to issue up to the full $14.4 million in bonds through the state education department.

SCF officials couldn’t immediately say which bond program they would use, nor specify where they would get the money to repay any debt.

“It’s all going to be worked out over the next three or four months,” said SCF spokeswoman Kathy Walker, who added the college’s board would have to approve the bond issue during a public meeting.

Despite the scarce details, those attending the ceremony gushed over the hub’s potential to strengthen Manatee/Sarasota job-recruitment and retention efforts.

“It’s incredibly fantastic,” Manatee County Commissioner Donna Hayes said. “I am so glad to see our two counties working together. It’s just what we need to bring jobs and business.”

Said Mark Pritchett, Gulf Coast Community Foundation vice president, “With 12 percent unemployment, chronic for the last couple of years, there’s got to be a better way.”

But the proposed hub could doom a proposed $110 million sports complex.

The DEAL site previously was earmarked for Springbok Academy and Spa, a proposed sports complex whose backers have been unable to finance the project.

The site was never under contract to Springbok and SMR couldn’t hold the property for Springbok indefinitely, SMR spokeswoman Candice McElyea said. SMR is willing to work with Springbok to relocate the project elsewhere within Lakewood Ranch should it secure financing, she said.

-- Herald Staff Writer Richard Dymond contributed to this story.

Duane Marsteller, Herald Staff Writer, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.

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