Faced with the choice between a cheaper library or a full-service facility, Manatee County officials have agreed to spend $20 million to build a much-needed library in Lakewood Ranch that will double as a community center.
The estimated cost of the library has risen significantly since it was first introduced, but that’s due in part to the added amenities and services that will support future additions to the library campus. In a presentation to the board Tuesday, county staff highlighted some of those additions.
County officials hope to have the library in Lakewood Ranch up and running by January 2023. It would become the seventh branch in Manatee’s library system.
The $19.6 million library option would pay for a 50,000-square-foot facility that includes an added second floor, a rooftop terrace, an energy plant and additional parking spaces, said Tom Yarger, the county’s construction services manager. A base library would cost $13.8 million, he explained.
“I think it’s unfair to lump it all together and say Lakewood Ranch is getting a $20 million library, so I appreciate staff breaking it down,” Commissioner Reggie Bellamy said.
The new library, which will be built on the southwest corner of Rangeland Parkway and Uihlein Road, is slated to become one of the centerpieces in Manatee’s eastern expansion of county services. There are also plans to build an aquatic center and racquetball courts in the area just north of the Premier Sports Campus.
Commissioners voted 6-1 to approve the construction contract for the Lakewood Ranch library, with Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge casting the dissenting vote.
“When it came up last time and it was right at $20 million, I near about had a heart attack. I couldn’t believe that all of a sudden we were talking about building a $20 million library,” said Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, who represents the area where the library will be constructed. “I wasn’t in favor of that, but in all fairness, when I started having these meetings with staff and the county administrator … I realized that the money we’re talking about was not all the library. It’s many things.”
Even though the price has increased, Baugh said she was in support of the library, especially since the facility had been promised to residents several years ago. Building the Lakewood Ranch library was part of the reason for the Infrastructure Sales Tax that residents approved and the library impact fee charge that commissioners approved in 2015.
“Every library in this county is full,” said Commissioner Carol Whitmore. “Lakewood Ranch is the fastest-growing master-planned community in the country and it has no library.”
But other commissioners balked at the cost. Pointing to the possibility of cost savings, Van Ostenbridge urged his fellow board members to consider leasing out a space in the Lakewood Ranch area, instead of committing to paying for an entirely new facility.
“If we lease, residents can have a library much sooner than if we choose to build. I don’t think it makes a difference to them if we own it or if it’s leased,” Van Ostenbridge said. “We’re talking about a massive investment at this point. I think it’s something to talk about and discuss. The previous board went into this with good intentions, but this has become a behemoth.”
Are libraries still a viable concept?
Van Ostenbridge also argued that libraries were trending in a different direction, with heavier reliance on digital services that can be accessed from home.
“I don’t see long-term stability for a library at this point. I want Lakewood Ranch to have a library,” he added. “They were promised a library, but the question is do we want to spend millions of dollars building a permanent structure when in 10 years, the whole concept will be different?”
Commissioner James Satcher agreed that the price and scale of the library project seemed to spiral out of control. As part of Tuesday’s discussion, he made an unsuccessful motion to redesign the library with a maximum cost of $10 million.
“I don’t know that people wanted this. And when I say that, I mean that they didn’t want it on this scale,” Satcher explained. “This is a huge project.”
Citing previous commitments and dedicated funding sources, board members quickly shot down their colleague’s efforts to deliver anything less than the dedicated library that East County residents have sought for years.
“The citizens voted to tax themselves and part of that money was for a library in Lakewood Ranch. Whenever you have something in your district, I support it because you’re the district commissioner,” Baugh told Van Ostenbridge. “But, you sir, do not know more about Lakewood Ranch than I do. I think it’s appalling that we’re even having this discussion.”
A modern-day library is more than a place to borrow books or access a computer, said Commissioner George Kruse. He argued that a shift to digital technology won’t lead to the extinction of libraries, which serve as gathering spaces for the community.
“I think we have a fundamental difference in what libraries are and the importance of libraries. Libraries are not stacks, they’re about community centers,” Kruse noted. “They do provide things like power washers and pans. That might not be a lot to you, but that means a lot to people.”
“This isn’t like we’re building some behemoth structure. It’s not. This is about centers for (Science, Technology, Engineers, Arts and Mathematics) where kids can go and learn. This is an opportunity for meeting space. There’s a lot a library can do,” he continued.
The added second level will allow the Lakewood Ranch library to host conventions and large events on the second floor, Yarger said. The county’s largest library will remain the Central Library in downtown Bradenton, which is 57,000-square-feet.
Despite its location in Lakewood Ranch, Baugh pointed out that the library will provide access to books, computers and other resources to residents in a broad region out east.
“It’s not just Lakewood Ranch. It’s a community. It’s Myakka (City). It’s Tara. It’s Rosedale. It’s River Club. There are so many communities in that area that are not Lakewood Ranch,” she explained. “It’s a community, the whole area. We’ve got some great things, but the one thing we don’t have is a place for community.”
This story was originally published October 28, 2021 6:00 AM.