Benderson Park Conservancy names Bruce Patneaude the new chief operating officer

Stephen Rodriguez to leave position in early March

The Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy — formerly the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates (SANCA) — has appointed Bruce C. Patneaude, former vice president of operations at IMG Academy, as its chief operating officer, the Conservancy announced this week.

A 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Conservancy manages Nathan Benderson Park, which has become an internationally renowned rowing facility near the Sarasota County-Manatee County line.

Sarasota County owns the park.

Patneaude joined the Conservancy in August 2022 as vice president of operations, a news release notes. Prior to that, he was on the IMG Academy staff for 12 years, “managing more than 150 employees, achieving significant operational efficiencies and successfully leading functional teams through tremendous programmatic growth and expansion of facilities,” including overseeing $100 million in new construction, the release points out.

Patneaude is succeeding Stephen V. Rodriguez, “who will be transitioning out of his current role in early March,” the release adds.

Rodriguez joined what was then SANCA in 2017. His tenure with the nonprofit began just before Benderson Park hosted the World Rowing Championships, in September of that year.

In a July 2017 press release about Rodriguez’s hiring, the late Bill Robinson, then-chair of the SANCA board, called Rodriguez “a perfect fit for Nathan Benderson Park.” The release noted that Rodriguez would be bringing to the facility “more than 25 years of event marketing and management experience,” coupled with more than 13 years of professional experience in the sports industry.” Rodriguez would be coming to Sarasota after spending 18 years with the Florida Sports Foundation, where he had served as senior vice president since 2010, the release added.

Just after 6 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, SANCA announced that its president and CEO, Tomas Herrera-Mishler, had resigned. “He wishes to pursue other professional activities,” a news release said at the time.

Herrera-Mishler had held the positions only since August 2020.

During a January 2021 presentation to the county’s Tourist Development Council (TDC), he pointed out that he actually had returned to Sarasota after being away for many years. He started his career as a landscape architect in Florida, he explained, and one of his projects was the master plan for The Ringling Museum of Art.

He then moved into the tourist destination planning industry, Herrera-he said, and later transitioned into urban design.

During the January 2021 presentation to the TDC, Rodriguez joined Herrera-Mishler in reporting that Benderson Park lost about $19 million in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In announcing Herrera-Mishler’s departure months later, SANCA also pointed out that Rodriguez would serve as interim CEO of the nonprofit.

The Conservancy’s news release this week noted that Rodriguez stewarded Benderson Park through a number of challenges, including two hurricanes. County staff has reported that the facility suffered significant damage as a result of Hurricane Ian’s passage through Southwest Florida in late September 2022.

It was not until late afternoon on Oct. 19, 2022 that the park reopened to the public. Even so, the Conservancy kept the Balducci Playground closed, citing the need to ensure that it was safe for users before allowing people onto that part of the site.

In a Jan. 30 update to the county commissioners, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis wrote that the playground and walking paths had been cleared and had been made accessible once again to the public. “Temporary dock solutions will be utilized for regattas,” Lewis continued, “until permanent start docks are re-installed. The goal is for installation to be complete by mid-April.”

Further, Lewis noted, shoreline repairs in sections “critical to the operations of major regattas” was to begin the first week of February, with completion anticipated by the end of May.

Plaudits for Rodriguez

The Conservancy news release this week noted that Rodriguez worked to attract major championships to the park, expanded its programming — including dragon boat paddling — and launched community events such as Fireworks on the Lake and Trick or Treat on the Lake.

Among the championships the park hosted while Rodriguez was chief operating officer were the 2018 World Rowing Masters Regatta, the 2019 World Rowing U23 Championships, three NCAA Women’s Rowing Championships and the 2022 International Dragon Boat Club Crew World Championships, the release added.

In early May 2022, the Sarasota County Commission agreed unanimously to allocate $20 million out of its Tourist Development Tax — or “bed tax” — revenue for the construction of a boathouse and indoor sports complex at Benderson Park.

During the May 10, 2022 commission meeting, Rodriguez explained that county staff had asked the Conservancy to hire a firm to undertake a feasibility study for the indoor sports complex after the commissioners made that facility one of their top priorities for 2022.

Johnson Consulting of Chicago, which won the bid, studied market demand, other facilities that potentially could compete with the new boathouse and indoor sports complex, and the financial prospects, Rodriguez continued that day.

The study found “a significant void of available indoor sports complex space in the marketplace,” a summary of the findings said. Further, Rodriguez told the commissioners, a full calendar of bookings at the facility would be anticipated.

In the news release this week, Michael Taaffe, chair of the Conservancy’s board of trustees, said, “On behalf of the board, we are grateful to Stephen for his contributions and leadership.” Taafe added,  “As a new chapter for the park is set to begin, we will continue to build on the success of recent years, including attracting major international sporting events to the region and building the new multi-sport indoor complex. We welcome Bruce and are confident he has the skills and experience to expertly lead the park’s future.”

“The park has a full roster of events and team trainings slated for this year,” the release points out. These include the USRowing Youth National Championships in June, the Sarasota-Bradenton Triathlon in March, the USA Swimming Open Water Championships in April, and the United States Dragon Boat Federation’s Club Crew National Championships in July.