Celebrating both a new chapter for Southwest Florida Episcopalians and the preservation of a treasured tract of Old Florida, the Rt. Rev. Dabney Smith gave his blessing Tuesday to a 97-acre riverfront retreat. As bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida, Smith welcomed guests to the DaySpring Episcopal Center to celebrate the first phase of a 10-year development plan, the addition of a $3 million center that will include a meeting hall, pool and outdoor pavilion. "We recognized that what we're doing in one sense is not just a conference center, but a preservation of Old Florida," Smith said. He said there is a beauty and serenity at the wooded property that calms people as soon as they enter the gate of the retreat that the diocese has operated for 35 years along the Manatee River. Scores of people — both Episcopalian and nondenominational groups — have used the property for both faith-based retreats and team-building meetings. "Sometimes people need to leave home to learn what they already know," Smith said.There are youth dorms, a chapel, dining hall and the diocese headquarters at DaySpring. The 12,500-square-foot addition will include the multipurpose building, which will replace a triple-wide modular building that was supposed to be temporary when it was installed in 2001. The money has been raised for the first phase, designed by Fawley Bryant Architects and built by Willis Smith Construction, diocese spokesman Garland Pollard said. Fundraising soon will begin for the second and third phases, which will include a worship center and more residential space in the property that is heavily wooded with walking trails throughout. All three phases were approved by the Manatee County Commission in December. "The long-term plan was to keep the Old Florida style, and I think we've successfully done that," project land-use attorney Mark Barnebey said. More than 100 priests from throughout the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida, which stretches from Brooksville south to Marco Island, were at DaySpring for the project dedication and their annual College of Presbyters meeting. Among them was the Rev. Arthur Lee, who has served in the diocese since 1977. Now retired, he is assisting at St. James Episcopal Church in Port Charlotte. In the late 1970s, Lee listened to an impassioned debate on whether or not to establish DaySpring. The vote was in favor, and Lee said he watched a lovely place develop. In 1988, he was rector at Church of the Holy Spirit in Safety Harbor and signed off on the transfer of its St. Thomas Chapel to the DaySpring property. "It turned out to be the real heart of the diocese," Lee said. There are 31,000 Episcopalians in 77 congregations with 12 schools in the diocese that encompasses 12 counties. Parishioner Lisa Parker, who attends St. Margaret of Scotland in Sarasota, said the new pool and the flexibility of the multipurpose building, which are scheduled for completion in the fall, will enhance the property. "It's a celebration of the possibilities with a new building and all of the great work they do here at DaySpring, providing space and facilities for more and more people to deepen their spirituality with each other," she said. Because it is Lent, Parker looks forward to joining other St. Margaret church members in walking the stations of the cross around a lake at DaySpring. "It's a moving and spiritual experience when you're walking with your brothers in Christ," she said. The Rev. Mario Castro, who leads the Hispanic ministry at Church of the Redeemer in Sarasota, brought about 60 people to a retreat in December for a peaceful place to pray, reflect and meditate. "After the retreat, the people, they just wanted to stay here forever," he said. They will return for four days in May.