More than 20 years ago, when a little-known developer announced that a mammoth master-planned community called Lakewood Ranch would rise from the vast, empty cow pastures of east Manatee and Sarasota counties, people in Sarasota scoffed. After all, who would want to live so many miles from the beaches and the culture that have made Sarasota famous? Besides, this would be an “instant city,” without the character and charm that made Sarasota’s long-established neighborhoods so unique.
No matter that the developer confidently predicted that Lakewood Ranch would be a beautiful, self-contained city where residents could “live, work and play.” People had heard Florida developers make grand promises before, and besides, developers have a way of coming and going so quickly here that someone new with a new set of grand promises would probably take over in a few years so.
But guess what? Lakewood Ranch, all 31,000 acres of it, today is a thriving metropolis of more than 10,000 homes and nearly 35,000 residents—and growing. Those residents have come from all over the compass, drawn by the look, the location and the lifestyle of their homogeneous hometown. (Last year, 46 percent of new buyers were Floridians, primarily relocating from Sarasota and Bradenton; the remainder mostly came from nine states in this order: New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Illinois, Ohio, Georgia, Texas, Massachusetts and California.) They’re well-off, well-educated and about half are still working. Many insist they wouldn’t live anywhere else than in the friendly, perfectly planned community, where there’s so much to experience and enjoy that they could go weeks—months—a lifetime!—without ever leaving.
Carved out of the 48-square-mile Schroeder-Manatee Ranch in east Manatee and Sarasota counties—owned since 1922 by the Uihlein family (they owned the Jos. Schlitz Brewing Company, “the beer that made Milwaukee famous,” for more than a hundred years)—Lakewood Ranch debuted its first “village,” Summerfield, in 1995. Homes started in the high $80,000s; in 2016 the average new-home price in Lakewood Ranch was quintuple that, at $464,000.
The original developer, SMR, is still on the job, and the original “live, work, play” marketing campaign came true. Now there are more than 10,000 residences in 13 “villages,” from apartments to golf-course-view executive mansions; 1,300-plus thriving businesses, everything from mom-and-pop pizzerias to major corporate headquarters; lots of educational opportunities and medical facilities, from a hospital to LECOM, one of the country’s largest schools of dentistry, pharmacy and osteopathic medicine, and a huge range of recreational amenities.
As Lakewood Ranch hurtles into its third decade, four major new communities with a total of 1,500-plus more residences are currently under way, with an additional 265-acre biotech live-work campus planned for S.R. 70 and Lakewood Ranch Boulevard, and the brand-new Waterside village—the first Lakewood Ranch residential village to reach into Sarasota County—extending south to Fruitville Road that will add 5,144 more residences.
No, it isn’t Sarasota. And if you ask the residents, that’s a very good thing. Indeed, there are many reasons to love Lakewood Ranch—even if you don’t live there.