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East Word: Change the name of the game in 2010

Call it adjustment, calibration or adaptation.

It was the name of the game in 2010. And it was all about change in East Manatee County.

The crazy winter that had Manatee County shivering well into February gave farmers fits.

Tomatoes ruined by the freeze and a general disruption of winter crops left some growers wondering what to do next.

C&D Fruit and Vegetable Company at 16505 State Road 64 added hydroponic crops and an interactive learning experience late in the year.

The O’Brien family, owners of C&D, joined Mixon Fruit Farms and Dakin Dairy in taking a traditional agricultural business and adding an element of tourism.

Also seeking to tap into tourism, specifically sports tourism, were Manatee County government, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch and others. County officials at year’s end were rushing to complete a rowing training facility at Fort Hamer Park, complementing what Benderson Development is doing just south of the Manatee-Sarasota county line.

Over the past couple of years, Benderson proved that it could fill hundreds of hotel rooms with competitive rowing events that attracted thousands of people to the area, making cash registers ring at restaurants, gas stations and other businesses. Manatee County decided it wanted a piece of the action as well.

And SMR, developer of Lakewood Ranch, is developing a massive sports complex east of Lorraine Road and just north of State Road 70. The company is already marketing the facility to organizers of large-scale events such as soccer and lacrosse tourneys, senior games and more. There are few facilities in the United States that can have 22 soccer fields going at once. The new facility is expected to open in April.

In Parrish, the Florida Railroad Museum is partnering with RealRail, the Parrish Civic Association and others to develop the Florida Railroad Experience, which would be a quantum leap forward in making Parrish a must-see for tourists and residents alike.

Parrish residents were inspired in part by the advent of local competitive rowing and what a draw that has been for putting dollars into the economy.

Local sports tourism already includes Pittsburgh Pirates spring training baseball, the Marauders, the Sarasota Polo Club and even a cricket club at Lakewood Ranch.

Also seeking to change with the times was developer Pat Neal. He launched his 380-acre Central Park community at Lakewood Ranch with lower new-home prices that had scarcely been seen in a decade.

Better known as a developer of luxury communities, Neal was unafraid to offer homes at less than $130,000 and was rewarded with some handsome sales figures, even in the teeth of the Great Recession. Ultimately, Central Park is expected to have about 800 homes.

Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, located just across the street from Neal’s Central Park, is now running at full capacity with its medical and pharmacy school. Also planned at LECOM is a dental school within the near future.

At year’s end, another developer announced plans to build several hundred apartments within that same general area, as the development of Lakewood Ranch north of State Road 70 seemed to hit a new gear.

And speaking of change, did we mention that Ranch community leaders are pushing ahead with a proposal to incorporate as a city?

That’s far from certainty that it will happen immediately, but a straw vote is planned in 2011 and economist Hank Fishkind said a City of Lakewood Ranch would be viable.

Significant in 2010 as well was SMR’s diligence in fighting to develop the Villages of Lakewood Ranch South.

SMR finally won approval from Sarasota County Commission to build the massive community. It’s forecast to eventually include 5,000 homes and create 1,000 jobs. But it will likely require the economy to warm up a bit more before the company moves forward with those plans.

For the same reason, Benderson Development kept its proposed mega mall on University Parkway and Interstate 75 in neutral for 2010.

One of the more intriguing stories of the year was the announcement that Sanborn Studios was opening at Lakewood Ranch to develop and produce film projects.

The studio, founders say, would create 100 good-paying jobs. Film is a big throw of the dice; hopefully studio officials will come up with lots of winners.

Among other changes that should be noted in 2010: The Fort Hamer bridge project seems to finally be moving forward, if it can pass muster of another environmental impact study.

And a couple of changes to note on the legislative front: The red light camera bill finally became law, growing out of a tragedy several years ago at the front gate of Tara. The lawmaker who steered the red light bill to passage, Ron Reagan, was term limited, as was his colleague in Bradenton, Bill Galvano. Taking their seats in the Florida House are Brad Steube and Jim Boyd, respectively.

Speaking of change, here’s one more. Some really serious change: Steve and Cheri Ziegler, of Greyhawk Landing, won a $61.5 million Powerball lottery.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee Editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.

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