Benderson Park Conservancy amended agreement wins County Commission approval, with county to pay about $1.2 million per year through September 2025

Document formally recognizes change of nonprofit’s name from SANCA

This block on the Nathan Benderson Park website explains what the Conservancy is. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy — previously known as the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates (SANCA) — has won an extension of its funding agreement with Sarasota County through the 2025 fiscal year, which will end on Sept. 30, 2025.

The Conservancy is to receive up to $1,189,480 each year to operate Benderson Park, which the county owns. “Such reimbursement shall not be increased, except for an annual … adjustment of 3%,” the agreement notes. Those increases are effective each Oct. 1, for the duration of the contract.

The first two adjustments were made on Oct. 1, 2020 and Oct. 1, 2021, a county staff memo points out. Oct. 1 is the start of each fiscal year.

A revised section of the agreement explains that most of its terms actually went into effect on Oct. 1, 2019 and that they would be valid for three years. The agreement could be extended for one additional, two-year period, the document says, with commission approval, which the board members gave this week.

The Conservancy must submit invoices to county staff “no more frequently” than once a month, the agreement makes clear, and those invoices “must include sufficient documentation and detail,” including names of vendors, dates of service and an “itemized breakdown of services and/or other charges as necessary to support” reimbursement of the Conservancy for expenses.

No commissioner offered a comment on the agreement revisions. The item was part of their May 24 Consent Agenda of routine business matters. They approved that on a 4-0 vote, with Commissioner Michael Moran absent because of ill health.

This is an aerial view of Benderson Park. Photo by Matthew Leftwich for Google

In June 2018, at the recommendation of county staff, the commissioners agreed to give SANCA an extra $858,353 for the 2019 fiscal year to help pay for personnel and events, as well as routine expenses, which were rising. However, at the commissioners’ direction, county administrative staff was to work with the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR) personnel and SANCA in “sorting out a new agreement that’s fair to both sides,” as then-board Chair Nancy Detert put it.

Then, on May 29, 2020, the May 24 county staff memo points out, staff sent SANCA a letter, advising it that, because of financial impacts related to the COVID-19 pandemic, staff was recommending a reduced payment of $980,131 to SANA for the 2021 fiscal year.

On Sept. 9, 2020, the commissioners approved the first amendment to that agreement. That restored the earlier annual reimbursement of up to $1,189,480, as explained in a county memo in the board’s agenda packet for the meeting that day. The two 3% increases also were applied, the memo noted, which allowed “for a total potential reimbursement of $1,261,919.33.”

That September 2020 memo also pointed out that no funding had been provided for the nonprofit following the end of the 2022 fiscal year. Thus, the amendment this week rectified that situation.

This is a list of County Commission actions in regard to SANCA prior to the May 24 vote. Image courtesy Sarasota County

County commissioners have emphasized that a staff analysis undertaken a few years ago showed that the county would spend more money annually to manage and maintain the park than the amount it had been paying SANCA.

In May 2019, Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, explained results of that research. The 2019 fiscal year budget for SANCA was $2,102,595, she said. If county employees had to handle all of the work that SANCA staff took care of, Rissler added, the expense would be at least $2,304,689. The latter figure, she noted, did not include funding associated with events or the necessity of one-time payments for extra county vehicles for staff.

During the commission’s May 10 meeting, Chair Alan Maio referenced that analysis. His comment came as the board members heard details of plans for a boathouse and an indoor sports complex at Benderson Park. (The commissioners unanimously agreed to commit $20 million to that project, with the funds to come from the sixth penny of the county’s Tourist Development Tax — or, “bed tax” — after that goes into effect on Oct. 1.)

One other facet of the amended agreement approved this week calls for the county to be responsible for the “maintenance, inspection, monitoring or repair services of the approach slabs, bridges and sub structures” of the two vehicular bridges that connect Regatta Island to North Cattlemen Road, plus one bridge on North Cattlemen Road.

‘World-class rowing facility’

A May 2019 slide offers a sampling of events at Benderson Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The latest version of the funding agreement does formally change the name of the nonprofit that manages the park from SANCA to Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy. The new name legally went into effect on Oct. 12, 2021, the amended agreement said.

Lynn Hobeck-Bates, the marketing director for the Conservancy, told the county’s Tourist Development Council in March that the new name connects the park to the management organization, resulting in better branding.

The county and SANCA entered into their first agreement in 2014, as the county staff memo in the May 24 agenda packet explains. That contract was amended five times before an updated licensing and operating document won commission approval on Jan. 15, 2020, the memo adds.

This pie chart shows the breakdown of types of events held at Benderson Park during the 2021 fiscal year. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Nathan Benderson Park “has become a world-class rowing facility and venue capable of hosting major events that bring significant economic benefits to the local economy,” the staff memo says. The park not only hosts “large national and international rowing events” and regional ones, the memo continues, but the park “also offers daily opportunities for general public recreation on and off the water …” People can pursue stand-up paddleboarding, bicycling, jogging and picnicking, as well, the memo notes.

The park, which also has a children’s playground, comprises about 600 acres, county documents also point out.

Further, the agreement points out that the general public has use of the park during posted hours, except for Regatta Island and except for areas “previously reserved, booked, programmed or scheduled” by the Conservancy for special events, construction or maintenance activities.