Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Prepare for the Manatee of tomorrow, CEO says

Herald Staff Writer

LAKEWOOD RANCH - Manatee County continues to change, but Rex Jensen's message does not: Growth is coming, like it or not. So plan and prepare - or suffer the consequences.

It's not the first time that Jensen, president and chief executive of Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc., has given his "Nature of Planned Growth" talk and it won't be the last. But with each passing month, as out-of-town residents continue their influx into Manatee County, the weight of Jensen's words get heavier and heavier.

"Regulation hasn't stopped, or even controlled, growth," Jensen said. "We need a shift of thinking from trying to manage growth to trying to plan for it."

About 75 people were on hand Wednesday for the Manatee Chamber of Commerce-sponsored presentation.

It's poor planning, he said, that is responsible for all of the people who oppose new growth.

"I don't blame people for not liking growth," he said. "It's linear, environmentally negative and unattractive. It consumes infrastructure without providing any."

His company's master-planned development - Lakewood Ranch - is a good laboratory, he said, to study growth planning and how it can be dealt with efficiently and effectively.

Jensen identified insufficient roads and county policy on residential density requirements as the two biggest problems facing the area.

"The roads we have today won't support the population of tomorrow," he said.

Jensen pointed to the State Road 70 widening project which he says should have been done 10-15 years ago.

County Commissioner Donna Hayes was on hand for Jensen's talk and, like Jensen, believes that transportation is one of the most important issues facing Manatee County.

"There's no doubt about it. We missed the boat on transportation," Hayes told The Herald. "We haven't been able to keep up with it."

She said a new east-west connector, like extending 44th Avenue all the way out to Lakewood Ranch, will help ease congestion on heavily traveled arteries like S.R. 70 and State Road 64.

Hayes is also a proponent of developing a new transit system to include buses and trolleys that people would use to get to and from work each day.

The commissioner also said the county is going to have to make some concessions with developers regarding density if there's any hope of developing housing that is truly affordable to the average worker - something that is imperative if Manatee County is to continue to attract new employers.

Jensen said it's critical to start working on these problems now. Problems can't continue to worsen without economic and quality-of-life ramifications, he said.

"Look at the places we draw people from - New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Ohio. How long will it take for this place to get worse than another place? We can't let it get that far."

Matt Griswold, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 708-7908, or at mgriswold@HeraldToday.com.

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