Continued public funding for park questioned during CONA panel discussion
A member of the Nathan Benderson Community Park Foundation told members of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA) this week that he does not know why the nonprofit has been unable to raise all the private money promised years ago for improvements at the county-owned facility.
“That’s a $60,000 question,” Frederick Piccolo, president and CEO of the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, said during a Jan. 8 panel discussion on the public-private partnership at the heart of the park’s development and operations.
The foundation has used professional fundraisers, Piccolo added. “It’s not from a lack of effort.” The fact that rowing is not such a well-known sport may be a factor, he said.
Nonetheless, he voiced confidence that the foundation “sooner or later” will find people willing to invest in structures such as a boathouse and grandstands.
“I wish I had a better answer for you,” Piccolo told CONA Vice President William Zoller. Also a member of the panel, Zoller had asked the question that prompted Piccolo’s comments. “We’re trying really, really hard [to raise money],” Piccolo said. “I can pledge to you 100% effort.”
According to his calculations, Stephen V. Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates (SANCA), told the audience, the foundation has provided $14 million to the park for infrastructure and operations.
SANCA manages the park, including the scheduling of all the events.
“I’d be much more worried if the World Rowing Championships had been a bust,” Piccolo added.
As it was, Piccolo stressed, athletes and visitors alike offered very positive comments about the park and the event, which was held in late September.
Moreover, Rodriguez said, representatives of FISA (Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron), the world governing body of the sport of rowing, said the 2017 World Rowing Championships was one of the best examples of that series of competitions — if not the best — ever held. In fact, Rodriguez added, FISA already has plans for 2019 to use Benderson Park as the site of the World Rowing Championships for people under the age of 23.
“They have a vision and understanding of what this park means in the vision of rowing in the United States,” Rodriguez said of FISA officials.
Public money for the park
Zoller and Pat Rounds, another member of the CONA board, began the discussion by pointing to the contributions from Sarasota and Manatee counties, as well as the Florida Legislature, to construction and operations at Benderson Park and the World Rowing Championships.
In October 2011, Rounds said, the Sarasota County Commission made a $19.5-million commitment to the first two phases of work at the facility, with the goal of making the park a world-class rowing venue. However, Rounds noted, Benderson Development Co. received a no-bid contract for that work, which was funded through the county’s Tourist Development Tax (TDT) — or “bed tax” — revenue.
Past CONA President Lourdes Ramirez pointed out that the county had to use sales tax revenue to cover some of the expenses of the $21.5-million project to upgrade its Siesta Public Beach facilities. If the county had had more TDT revenue available for that project, she said, the surtax funding could have gone to other vital initiatives, such as improvements to River Road in South County.
Members of the public may make the point that if the TDT revenue were not going to the park, it could be used for other expenses, Rodriguez said, but that is a matter for elected governmental leaders to decide. He suggested the public address such issues with the commissioners.
In 2013, Rounds noted, the state provided $10 million to the park; in both 2016 and 2017, the state provided it a grant of $2.5 million.
“So we’re transforming [the site] from a former borrow pit into a premier rowing facility through a public-private partnership,” she continued.
The state has yet to turn over the final $2.5 million to SANCA, Rodriguez pointed out.
The understanding back in 2013, Rounds said, when leaders from Sarasota and Manatee counties put in the bid for the 2017 World Rowing Championships, was that private funding would complete the estimated $60-million improvements, including a boathouse, grandstands and a jumbotron.
Rounds showed the CONA audience members slides depicting renderings of the park, which she said were presented to a FISA committee during the 2017 World Rowing Championships bid initiative. The boathouse, grandstands and jumbotron were to have been completed by March 2016, she pointed out, based on the bid package.
Yet, among the key pieces of infrastructure, only the Finish Tower was ready for the 2017 World Rowing Championships, she noted. Public money had to be used to rent structures, including the grandstands, she added.
With more major events coming up this year, Zoller asked, who is going to pay for the rented facilities? What types of agreements — if any — have been signed, “so we taxpayers are not burdened?”
Then-County Administrator Tom Harmer told members of the Siesta Key Association at their annual meeting in March 2016 that the Benderson family paid for the Finish Tower, whose cost was put at about $5.6 million, based on county permitting documents.
The boathouse, estimated at $10 million in 2013, was envisioned as the key to making the park’s operations self-sustaining, Rounds noted. Paul Blackketter, the former president and CEO of SANCA, touted the boathouse to county leaders years ago as a venue where a wide variety of events could be held. The revenue its rentals generated would more than cover any operating losses for SANCA, Blackketter said.
In a May 2017 report to the County Commission, then-SANCA President and CEO Robert Sullivan conceded that no certainty exists about when the boathouse will be built. In the meantime, Sullivan told the board, SANCA planned to rent out areas in the Finish Tower — when it was not being used for rowing events — with the hope of generating some of the revenue foreseen from a boathouse.
By her accounting, Rounds told the CONA audience, about $43.5 million of state and county funds has been invested in Benderson Park, with only about $5.6 million coming through private sources.
Zoller then pointed to the fact that SANCA has asked the county for more money for the last part of the current fiscal year, to cover its expenses, and it is seeking an even higher sum for the fiscal years from 2019 through 2021.
The nonprofit was allocated $843,222 from Sarasota County for the 2018 fiscal year, he said; it has asked for about $300,000 more. Further, even though county funding for SANCA is set to end on Sept. 30, when the current fiscal year ends, SANCA is seeking $1,205,000 for FY19 through FY21.
He was not disputing the value of the park, Zoller said. “It’s certainly a feather in our caps.” Nonetheless, he continued, taxpayers are concerned about SANCA’s financial situation, without the boathouse as a revenue-generator.
Piccolo pointed out that even though his role as a Nathan Benderson Community Park Foundation member is to help raise private money, that is a difficult undertaking. Still, Piccolo continued, as a New Yorker, he remains steadfast in his view that Benderson Park’s international reputation one day could rival that of Central Park in New York City. “[Benderson Park] needs a little time to gestate here.”
Not only is it “the only FISA-certified [rowing] course in all of North America,” he pointed out, but it is also a public park.
“We set some very ambitious goals [several years ago],” Piccolo continued. “We didn’t meet all those goals. … Our goal is to finish the improvements.”
He also stressed that the borrow pit that has been transformed into the park’s lake was the source of material needed to construct Interstate 75; that borrow pit was not created by the Benderson family.
“There was no nefarious conspiracy here,” Piccolo told the audience.
“I also feel that [the facility] to some degree has been singled out for the name that’s on it,” Piccolo continued — a point County Commissioner Charles Hines made during his board’s Dec. 8, 2017 retreat.
During his remarks, Piccolo characterized some of the public reaction to the Benderson family’s involvement with the facility as “vilification.”
The late Nathan Benderson was the founder of Benderson Development Co. His son, Randy Benderson, is CEO of the firm.
“Vilifying Benderson Development is not part of this meeting,” Rounds told him. “This is really a dollar and cents thing.”
Rodriguez, who took over as the SANCA president and CEO in August, added that he was still working with the Florida Sports Foundation when the idea of the rowing venue first was pitched to state leaders. His said his reaction was, “‘It’s a great vision, but there’s no way they’re going to pull this off.’”
Yet, the community has done so, he stressed. What else of a world-class nature, like the park, can be found in Florida?, he asked.
Jono Miller, retired director of the Environmental Studies Program at New College, responded that Warm Mineral Springs in North Port has an international reputation for the mineral content and temperature of its water; Siesta Public Beach has been named the No. 1 beach in the United States twice this decade; and Myakka River State Park attracts visitors from many foreign countries because of its vast array of wildlife. “We do have a number of world-class facilities,” Miller told Rodriguez, “and you should know that if you are going to live here.”
Rodriguez also reminded the audience that the park hosts a numerous events unrelated to rowing, including festivals and triathlons. Additionally, he said, on a recent random Sunday, 1,300 unique park visitors were counted over a one-hour period, even though no event was underway. “You have a beautiful 600-acre park.”
Piccolo also told the audience he believes CONA could be more helpful in [promoting] the facility to community residents.