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Manatee County community leaders ponder ideas on how to manage a growing population

A county government building with American flag.
Manatee County Government

Manatee County is now the 6th fastest growing county in Florida. One commissioner said the county should focus less on sprawl and more on building up urban areas like Bradenton.

Manatee County's population grew to about 399,700, according to the 2020 census, representing an overall growth rate of close to 33%.

Managing the influx of new people and how to best serve longtime residents was the topic of discussion Thursday at the Manatee Tiger Bay Club.

County Commissioner George Kruse was one of the panelists at the event. He called growth inevitable and said Manatee County should focus less on sprawl and more on building up urban areas like Bradenton.

"In the end, are we growing our community in a way that is beneficial and sustainable for the long-term viability of Manatee County?” he asked. “Do we want to continue staying up in average age or do we want to start providing the community amenities, the mentoring, and the smaller urban units the young professionals desire and by extension, that the employers we want to attract here are going to look for in a workforce?”

Kruse also said he wants to provide incentives to new employees to move into the area and lessen the county’s reliance on lower-wage jobs in the tourism and the service sectors.

“This is an opportunity,” he said. “We could start planning for the growth we want and not just the growth we have. We could start proactively attracting accretive growth rather than treating all growth, like it's a detriment to our community. Manatee County can start growing strategically, but we have to start now.”

Kruse said more than 25,000 new residents have moved to Manatee County in the last three years.

Meanwhile, several major construction projects are worrisome to some residents.

The projects include thousands of new homes in Ellenton and in Parrish where rapid growth is expected to continue over the next decade as homebuilders bid to acquire large areas of land.

Meredith Barcomb of Preserve Our Wildlife Environment and Resources — or POWER — says residents of Manatee's rural communities east of I-75 want the county to be strategic when it comes to urban sprawl.

"Smart development means having the beach be the beach, having the suburbs be the suburbs, industrial be industrial, and remembering that our rural communities and conservation is important,” she said. “It just seems like votes are being passed left and right to continue development without any thought for how it’s going to affect the community in the long run."

Barcomb added her group understands that builders want to make a profit. But she says the county should advocate for development plans that best minimize the impact on their quality of life.

“So that's our fear, the fact that our schools are overpopulated and crowded already,” she said. “What does it look like for us in East Manatee County? Are we going to become the suburbs? It's looking like that. We hope that developers take a breath and recognize that developing at this speed is going to have long-term effects on our roadways, our animals and our water and its not going to be good.”

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.
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