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Sarasota-Manatee
Business Observer Monday, Jan. 10, 2022 8 months ago

Local construction company celebrates 50th with two major projects

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While neither the aquarium or library will be completed this year, the vertical construction expected to start in the fourth quarter will attract plenty of attention to the projects.

LAKEWOOD RANCH — Willis Smith Construction of Lakewood Ranch will be building two projects likely to be considered East County landmarks for decades to come. 

The projects will take place during the company’s 50th anniversary this year — although neither will be finished until 2023. Still, the vertical part of construction for both projects this year will attract plenty of attention, according to a story in the East County Observer, sister paper of the Business Observer.

"After the pandemic created a couple of slower years, it's nice to look forward to building significant landmarks that will be in this community a long time," says Dave Sessions, the CEO and president of Willis Smith Construction. 

The two projects — the $130 million Mote Science Education Aquarium at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota and the $17.3 million East County library at Premier Park in Lakewood Ranch — are different in terms of scope and cost, but both offer significant upgrades to the community.

"Mote will be an iconic structure and everyone will recognize it," Sessions says of the aquarium. "The visual effect will draw people in.

"In Manatee County, the mindset (toward the library) is more toward being practical and getting the most for your money. Manatee County wants functional attractiveness without spending an extraordinary amount for a monument. Mote has different goals. You're going to see it from I-75, the mall, across the lake. The additional dollars will pay for itself. People will drive by ... 'Wow!'"

Sessions says Fawley Bryant Architecture of Lakewood Ranch gave the "wow effect" to the East County library while sticking to a very functional design.

"The library involved two years of planning with Fawley Bryant leading the way," Sessions says. "The design took into account every detail, every space, every function. The results will be spectacular. It's rectangular and cost effective — four walls and a roof — but to Fawley Bryant's credit, they get it."

Sessions also notes Fawley Bryant designed a stairway on the outside of the building that leads to the roof and an observation and entertainment area. He says that the stairway draws the eye to the front entrance of the building and makes it special. Once to the roof, the area is designed for events that will provide views of the park and the area's lakes and wetlands.

"It identifies the entry point, like a welcome mat," Sessions says of the stairway. "It breaks up a large rectangular building that is cost effective."

Both projects have broken ground and are concentrating on below-the-ground and foundation work with vertical construction planned for the fourth quarter this year.

At the aquarium site, the parking lot has been constructed and the drainage that needs to be accomplished is almost finished. Stormwater pipes have been stockpiled and crews are working on water and sewer lines. The process of adding 30 feet of fill below the aquarium's future foundation has just begun (the site previously was a small lake). Foundation work will begin in the third quarter this year.

The foundation work needs to be "phenomenal," Sessions says, because of all the water tanks and the weight of the 1 million gallons of water the building will hold.

Vertical construction will begin in the fourth quarter. That will be an important time for Mote Marine.

"We have raised over $90 million," says Michael Moore, Mote's special advisor to the office of the president. "We have been quiet for a long period, but we are going to start making announcements. We are looking at each month making headway. People are going to see it going up and they will want to jump on board."

Sessions says his company's longtime relationship with contractors in the area has limited any shortage of workers caused by the pandemic.

After living in East County for the past 36 years, Sessions says he still gets excited by the importance of such projects. The library project especially hits home for him.

"My kids went to the Braden River Library and we just completed its expansion," he says. "Having this library (in Lakewood Ranch) just made sense. And I don't really call it a library. I call it a community center. Libraries today are not about books. They have meeting rooms, and children's centers and youth areas."

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