Consulting group’s report cites factors to indicate success of facility
The last item on the agenda for the May 10 Sarasota County Commission meeting is a staff recommendation that the board allocate $20 million out of the proceeds from the county’s sixth penny of Tourist Development Tax — or, “bed tax” —to the construction of a boathouse and indoor sports complex at Nathan Benderson Park.
The boathouse originally was envisioned as a facility that could be used not only to store equipment for competitions at the 600-acre, county-owned park near University Parkway and Interstate 75, but also as a place that could be rented out for community events.
As Paul Blackketter, the first president and CEO of the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Associates (SANCA), explained to county leaders years ago, the boathouse would enable the nonprofit to generate enough revenue so it no longer would need county subsidies.
SANCA, which recently has been rebranded as the Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy, maintains the county park and manages events there.
(During the county’s Tourist Development Council meeting on March 10, Lynn Hobeck Bates, who has served as a marketing and public information officer for a number of community nonprofit organizations, explained to the advisory board members that the name change was designed “to connect the disconnect. There was really no connection between Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates and Benderson Park. Most people couldn’t understand how the two worked together.”)
In the months leading up to the September 2017 World Rowing Championships at Benderson Park, the family of the park’s namesake contributed close to $6 million to make possible the construction of the Finish Tower, which contains event timing equipment and space for the referees for competitions.
In early 2013, in his original presentation to the county’s Tourist Development Council (TDC) regarding the facilities Benderson Park would need for the World Rowing Championships, Blackketter reported that a three-story finish line tower would have to be built. A basic structure, he added, was estimated then at $800,000.
In succeeding years, the boathouse has remained nothing more than a proposal. Instead, the Finish Tower has space that is rented for private events.
In October 2018, Stephen Rodriguez, then CEO of SANCA, told the county commissioners that the nonprofit was working on a new plan for a boathouse. It would be called the Aquatic Nature Center, he said, noting, “Really, it’s much more than just a place to store boats.”
As of that time, Rodriguez continued, the Nathan Benderson Community Park Foundation had established a $4-million matching grant fund for the center. The Foundation, he said, would match contributions “dollar for dollar,” with “an aggressive capital campaign” planned.
Still, no boathouse plans materialized.
During a March 10 presentation to the Tourist Development Council, Rodriquez, now the interim CEO and chief operating officer of the Conservancy, told the advisory board members that almost $10 million in privately funded capital improvements have been made at the park since its conception. He also pointed out that the park hosted 104 events in the 2021 fiscal year, only 15% of which involved rowing. Another 24% were celebrations, and 21% were meetings, according to a pie chart he provided.
Details of the new proposal
The county staff memo in the May 10 agenda packet for the commissioners points out, “Nathan Benderson Park is the only permanent, FISA-Class A rowing facility in North America, making it one of the top [premier] rowing facilities in the world.” (FISA is the international body that governs rowing events worldwide. The president is Jean-Christophe Rolland of France.)
The park, the memo continued, “began hosting organized regatta competitions in 2009 and has been host to multiple International, National and Regional events since then.”
On Jan. 11, the memo continued, the county commissioners formally approved their 2022 Strategic Plan, which included the Nathan Benderson Park Boathouse and Indoor Sports Complex as a “high priority.”
Earlier this year, the memo said, the Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy contracted with Johnson Consulting — which is based in Chicago — “to conduct a market feasibility and economic impact report on the potential for a boathouse and indoor sports complex” at the park.
The resulting report, in draft form, also was included in the May 10 agenda packet, the memo noted.
Further, the memo pointed out that, on April 26, the commissioners unanimously approved the implementation of a sixth penny of the county’s Tourist Development Tax, starting on Oct. 1, which will mark the beginning of the 2023 fiscal year. The board members agreed to the staff proposal that 70% of the proceeds from that penny be allocated to paying for construction of public projects. Therefore, the staff memo said, if the commissioners approved the proposal to dedicate $20 million to the boathouse initiative, the money would come out of that sixth penny’s revenue.
The memo added that staff recommended the board approve the funding plan.
The memo came from Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), through County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, to the board members.
The May 10 County Commission meeting will be held in the downtown Sarasota County Administration Center, which stands at 1660 Ringling Blvd. Although the boathouse discussion is slated to be conducted during the afternoon session, which will start at 1 p.m., Chair Alan Maio has stressed that a change in meeting protocols last year allows the board members to move afternoon items to the morning session, if time allows.
The economic impact factor
A slide in the county staff PowerPoint presentation prepared for the May 10 commission meeting said that the feasibility study found “a strong and growing market demand for indoor sports complex utilization.” It added, “There is a significant void of available indoor sports complex space in the marketplace.”
Further, the study said, “Full calendar utilization and booking is anticipated.”
Another slide noted that the facility would contain approximately 100,000 square feet of “net operable competition space,” with a minimum of eight full-size basketball courts convertible to 16 volleyball courts and 24 pickleball courts.
In late 2018, Commissioner Michael Moran brought up the potential expansion of county sports tourism through hosting national pickleball events. He advocated for research into the issue, including the prospect of new county facilities that could host major tournaments. Advocates for those complexes had discussed with him the growing national interest in pickleball, Moran pointed out.
The Benderson Park structure also would include four multi-purpose rooms, a sports performance training area encompassing as much as 10,000 square feet, 10 boat bays, an elevated walking track, locker rooms with showers, and a “Concession/Café Bar Concept,” the PowerPoint presentation said.
In terms of Benderson Park’s existing overall economic impact on the county: During his March 10 presentation to the Tourist Development Council, Rodriguez of the Conservancy noted that, from 2014 through the 2021 fiscal year — which ended on Sept. 30, 2021 — Benderson Park generated $212,197,953 in economic impact. The county’s investment in the property since 2014 was $30,646,870, the relevant slide showed.
“A lot of people know us as a rowing and paddling venue,” Rodriguez told the Council members, “but diversification has been important to us.”