Private school lays the groundwork for its future

Academy at the Lakes, central Pasco County’s private school that hugs both sides of Collier Parkway off SR 54, is getting a lot larger, growing by more than 46 acres.

The school has purchased a large chunk of land near its existing campus that has belonged to the pioneer MacManus family for decades, with an eye toward a major campus expansion in the coming years.

Dr. Lou MacManus, right, shares stories about growing up on the land she recently sold to Academy at the Lakes, with former Academy board chair Cynthia Martin and current headmaster Mark Heller. MacManus’ childhood home looms in the background. (Photo by Michael Hinman)

Dr. Lou MacManus, right, shares stories about growing up on the land she recently sold to Academy at the Lakes, with former Academy board chair Cynthia Martin and current headmaster Mark Heller. MacManus’ childhood home looms in the background. (Photo by Michael Hinman)

The land grab is four times larger than the school’s existing campus, and allows Academy at the Lakes to extend its reach to 20 Mile Level Road with a total of nearly 60 acres of land.

“About six years ago, my sister and I, and our brother, started talking about what we wanted to do with this land,” said Dr. Lou MacManus. A retired surgeon who lived for decades in Ohio and Tennessee, MacManus grew up in a modest house built a year before she was born on the property now owned by Academy at the Lakes. She shares many memories of her childhood on the land with her sister, University of South Florida professor Susan MacManus, as well as her late brother, Dr. H. Cameron MacManus, who was killed in a plane crash last spring.

“There’s been a lot of changes here since we were kids, and many of them good changes,” MacManus said. “But we didn’t want to see a bunch of homes on this land.”

Academy at the Lakes had plans to expand for the last two years, but the deal to purchase this piece of MacManus land came together only recently, thanks to the work of the MacManus family, as well as the Academy’s head of school Mark Heller and then board of trustees chair Cynthia Miller.

“The MacManuses have been very interested in seeing the future of their parents’ and grandparents’ land used for something productive and positive for the community,” Heller said. “They could’ve easily sold this land to a developer for a lot more money. But instead, decided that they should take a philanthropic route, and dedicate this land to the same thing they have always dedicated their lives to: education.”

Academy at the Lakes is paying slightly more than $2 million for the land, equating to a little less than $44,000 per acre. MacManus set up a charitable remainder annuity trust, which holds the 16-year mortgage for the property. Excluding any interest or other fees, that will cost the growing school approximately $10,500 per month on average.

While it might seem high, Heller sees it as an investment in the future for a school that is key to the economic growth in central Pasco County.

“The north side of the county is growing so fast, certainly now that construction and homebuilding is picking back up again,” Heller said. “The north side is going to be burgeoning again, just like it did 10 years ago, and we’re going to be able to grow with that community, and provide resources to that growing community.”

There are no immediate plans to build on the land, but it is something the school expects to do at some point to accommodate student needs, Heller said. In the meantime, some of the older students will tend to the land and learn how to grow oranges and take part in other agricultural activities. Food raised will be donated to local charities.

Heller talked about expansion in August 2011 when he said Academy at the Lakes should explore ways that would set it up for the next 100 years.

“This is something that could absolutely transform the footprint and the presence of the school,” Heller said at the time.

What happens is up to the school’s board of trustees, but there are many possibilities. One could include integrating the entire campus into one site, instead of having the younger and older students divided physically by Collier Parkway. The land could also become a sports complex center, among other things.

“There’s just so much that we can do that we haven’t really even talked about yet,” Heller said.

The matriarch of the MacManus family had always pushed education on her children, explaining why Lou MacManus and her siblings all reached doctorate levels in their schooling. Knowing that the farm she worked so hard to build would now be used for educating hundreds of young people — not just three — would make her mother proud, MacManus said.

“Education was so big for us growing up, and we were always out learning everything,” MacManus said. “We spent a lot of times outdoors, and didn’t watch much TV. We were doing sports, riding bicycles, and I even had a horse.”

The 2,200-square-foot house that served as the MacManus home for more than half a century still stands on the property. There are trees in front where the young MacManus children would hang their wet clothes after swimming in the nearby lake.

“We were together and outside from dawn until dusk,” MacManus said. “We spent our days swimming in the lake and roaming around the orange groves.”

And while the lake may no longer be a place where young people can just jump in, the land will be there to help educate many generations to come.

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