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Sarasota Herald Tribune (Florida)
MANATEE COUNTY — To accommodate its growing and changing population, including millennials who have or may soon have children and baby boomers who want an active retirement, Manatee County wants to expand opportunities for parks and recreation.
On Tuesday, the County Commission discussed a long-range master plan for its Parks and Natural Resources Department.
"It's a huge quality of life issue," Commission Chairwoman Betsy Benac said of the popularity of parks and nature preserves.
The plan calls for more air-conditioned facilities for indoor recreation programs, aquatics facilities, athletic fields, trails and greenways. The document calls for the county to identity land for acquisition while it is still available.
Several improvements are underway. Robinson Preserve in the Palma Sola area is undergoing an expansion. An aquatics center is planned for Lincoln Park in Palmetto, the first public swimming facility north of the Manatee River. Upgrades are in the works for the John H. Marble Park in Oneco, including replacing the aging gymnasium and the addition of a splash pad for children.
Hidden Harbor Park, planned near the new Fort Hamer Bridge in Parrish, is to join the existing G.T. Bray, Blackstone, Marble and Lakewood Ranch parks as major regional parks with several amenities. So will the Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch, if the county arranges its purchase from developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch.
A 19-acre site next to the future North River High School in Parrish is also a possible park property.
To supplement public facilities, the county can encourage developers and homeowner associations to provide parks for their neighborhoods.
Parks and Natural Resources Director Charles Hunsicker said his department could also partner with the library system. For example, if a library is built in Lakewood Ranch, perhaps it could include indoor space for exercise classes.
Hunsicker said officials will return to the commission with a funding strategy. Funding sources could include property taxes, impact fees and a sales tax for infrastructure that voters approved last fall.
Commissioner Carol Whitmore said the county could consider a referendum for a special tax to acquire more land for parks and preserves. Such ballot measures have been successful elsewhere, she noted.
County Administrator Ed Hunzeker stressed that expanding the parks and preserves network extends beyond acquiring land and constructing facilities, to operating dollars for staff.
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