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Sarasota Herald Tribune (Florida)
MANATEE COUNTY - For the first time since 1975, Manatee County is assembling a "master plan" for its parks and recreation programs and facilities.
An analysis of existing conditions, a look at demographic trends and more than 1,500 responses from online, website and public meeting surveys of park users are being used to create a strategy for how best to provide public parks that serve the county's 363,000 residents as well as those yet to come. By 2035, Manatee's population could exceed 500,000.
"There is no one right way to do this," David Barth, a parks planning consultant, advised the County Commission on Tuesday. Every parks master plan should be tailored to the community it serves, Barth emphasized.
For example, the county may want to provide facilities but prefer to contract with the private sector to operate programs.
The Parks and Natural Resources Department intends to have a draft document available in July and a final version ready for the County Commission's review on Aug. 8.
"We haven't finished the process," Parks and Natural Resources Director Charlie Hunsicker stressed.
"We have a lot to discuss moving forward," Commission Chairwoman Betsy Benac said.
So far, surveys indicate that fitness programs, senior programs, health and wellness programs and swimming
lessons rank among residents' higher priorities for county park services.
Existing parks that receive high marks from residents include Robinson Preserve, G.T. Bray Park, Coquina Beach, Manatee Beach and Emerson Preserve.
Residents say they want to see more nature trails, paved trails for biking and hiking and large community parks.
Commissioner Charles Smith said residents' priorities vary. "I like trails but some of my constituents don't." He also noted that he frequently hears demands for more soccer fields.
Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said East County families would like to see more summer camp programs their children can attend while parents are at work. She again pressed to get a public aquatics center in Lakewood Ranch.
Parks planner Kelley Klepper said the county expects to find priorities varying among "different user groups in each corner of the county."
Recently increased impact fees on new home construction, plus a half-cent sales for infrastructure that voters approved last fall, will provide funding. Even so, parks officials said they will look for opportunities for additional revenue sources. The operating expenses for any new facilities cannot be covered with sales taxes and impact fees and will have to be an ongoing budget consideration.
In a related discussion, County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said the commission can work out a spending plan and construction timetable for the proposed aquatics center at Lincoln Park in Palmetto during budget sessions in June.
The commission voted 6-1 to accept the city of Palmetto's offer of $850,000 toward construction and giving the county ownership of the four acres valued at $440,000. Benac, who wanted to wait until more details are finalized, cast the dissenting vote.
County Attorney Mickey Palmer expressed concern about acceptance of the city's offer before he sees a formal contract.
Most commissioners, however, said they felt the Palmetto City Commission deserved a timely response, even though the county has not settled its side of the funding question.
Hunzeker said the county can transfer $300,000 from sales taxes it had earmarked for expansion of the children's splash park at Lincoln and instead use that money for the aquatics center, which will feature a swimming pool suitable for tournaments.
Other county funding for the $3 million construction cost could come from a combination of sales taxes, impact fees and property taxes, Hunzeker said.
Commissioner Stephen Jonsson said he still thinks the school district should contribute financially since school swim teams will use the pool.
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