Nonprofit that manages Benderson Park cites rising expenses as justification for requesting more revenue
On a unanimous vote, the Sarasota County Commission has agreed to increase the county funding for the nonprofit organization that manages the county-owned Nathan Benderson Park.
In approving their June 13 Consent Agenda of routine business matters, the board members authorized an extra $200,000 a year for the Benderson Park Conservancy — formerly the Suncoast Aquatic Center Nature Associates (SANCA) — starting in the 2024 fiscal year, which will begin on Oct. 1. That will bring the total to $1,544,770.22, county staff noted in a memo included in the June 13 agenda packet.
The latter figure includes the annual adjustment in the payment, which is $44,993.31, the memo pointed out.
The county first entered into a license and operating agreement with SANCA in 2014, that memo said. The agreement was amended five times, the memo added, and then it was updated and restated in a Jan. 15, 2020 County Commission vote. That has been amended four times, the memo said.
“Pursuant to Section 2.5.5 of the [current] agreement,” the memo continued, the Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy (NBPC) “may submit a written request for an additional increase [in the funds it receives from the county] …” It has to provide “appropriate documentation and justification regarding a change in circumstances” as the basis for the request, the memo added.
In accord with that section, the Conservancy sent a letter to the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources staff on Feb. 28. Written by Bruce C. Patneaude, who was hired early this year as the new chief operating officer for the Conservancy, the letter noted that the Conservancy was expected to receive no more than $1,338,770.22 during the 2024 fiscal year. Yet he explained, “There is roughly an additional [$800,000] of reimbursable expenses in this fiscal year’s budget,” and the $200,000 makes up only a quarter of that. As a result, the Conservancy “will be covering the difference,” Patneaude pointed out.
“As we are all experiencing,” he continued, “our economy has seen record inflation these past two years, compounded by a limited labor pool. With annual increased utilization of the park and aging of the park, service levels must be increased with the rising costs of materials and labor.”
Patneaude offered the following examples:
- For the 2020 fiscal year, maintenance of the lake cost $12,903.75. That rose to $36,380 in the 2022 fiscal year, an increase of $23,476.25.
- Building maintenance cost $52,291.73 in the 2020 fiscal year; in the 2022 fiscal year, the amount was higher by $108,287.74, to a total of $160,579.47.
- Security cost $22,358.45 in the 2020 fiscal year; in the 2022 fiscal year, the total was $37,561.49, a hike of $15,204.04.
- The expense of utilities — water and electricity — was $62,224.26 in the 2020 fiscal year. The amount in FY 2022 was $72,958.96, an extra $10,734.70.
Patneaude noted that he had not listed other costs, including the money the Conservancy paid for fuel for the launch boats and vehicles. Moreover, he wrote, the Conservancy has to deal with digital signage, upkeep of the playground and beach restoration, among other expenses.
The Conservancy’s annual report for the 2022 fiscal year shows that it received $1,261,919.33 from the county, and park revenue added up to $372,730.47, for a total of $1,634,649.80. However, expenses came to $1,974,111.41, leaving a deficit of $339,461.61.
The county memo in the June 13 agenda packet pointed out that Benderson Park is seeing more utilization “through sports tourism events” and public activities.
Further, the county staff memo explained that the latest extension of the agreement with the Conservancy provided an expiration date of Sept. 30, 2024. However, the memo continued, county staff anticipates that the Conservancy’s services “will be required to maintain and operate the park at the standards of a world-class venue” through Sept. 30, 2026. The current agreement does allow for the term to be extended for one extra two-year period, with approval of County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, the memo said.
Staff recommended that the commissioners approve that extended term, it added. That was part of the motion the board members approved on June 13.
The annual appropriation for the Conservancy comes out of Tourist Development Tax — or, “bed tax” — revenue dedicated to the park’s operations. As The Sarasota News Leader has reported, the bed tax funds are on track to set another record this fiscal year.
Several years ago, in response to county residents’ complaints about the amount of money the county was paying what was then SANCA to operate the Benderson Park, the commissioners asked staff to research the expense the county would have to shoulder if the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department had to take over that responsibility. Carolyn Brown, then the director of the department, reported in June 2018 that it would cost the county more if staff were handling all of the work with which SANCA was charged.
On one further point, the county staff memo for June 13 explained that the Conservancy also is required to maintain a Capital Repair and Improvements Fund “to be used on capital repairs and improvements necessary to maintain or preserve the condition, structural integrity, safety or functionality of the park, or to address physical obsolescence.”
Therefore, staff requested that the commissioners approve the minimum contribution of $50,000 a year through the 2026 fiscal year. They did so, in their motion.
None of the commissioners commented on the staff requests before taking their vote on the Consent Agenda. Unless a board member has a question or comments, no remarks typically are made on the items on that agenda.
Benderson Park’s 2022 annual report
In its annual report for the 2022 fiscal year, the Conservancy reported a total economic impact on the community of $29,152,786. The highest annual figure for economic impact it has noted since the 2014 agreement with the county went into effect was $35,156,744, in the 2019 fiscal year, before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The report says that the regional economic impact of the park since 2014 added up to $231,589,435 through the 2022 fiscal year.
In the 2014 fiscal year, a graph shows, the park hosted only 20 events. The number for both the 2021 and 2022 fiscal years was 104. In the 2019 fiscal year, the figure was 131.
Further, the number of event and training session attendees in the 2022 fiscal year was 123,451, which was up almost 57%, compared to the 2021 figure of 78,730. The annual report did point out that, during the 2021 fiscal year, the park still was dealing with the COVID-19 impact on events.
For years, rowing teams from top universities have been coming to the park during the winter season to train, as first SANCA and then Conservancy staff has noted.
Another section of the report shows how many hotel room nights the staff tracked as a function of events at the park. The total in FY 2022 was 23,773, with the highest count for a solitary event put at 3,086 for the NCAA Divisions I, II and III Women’s Rowing, which took place from May 23 through May 29, 2022.
In second place was the 2022 USRowing Youth National Championships, in June 2022, with 2,801 room nights.
In July 2022, the chart notes, the International Dragon Boat Federation Club Crew World Championships resulted in 2,737 room nights sold, while the U.S. Dragon Boat Federation Club Crew Nationals from Sept. 30 through Oct. 3, 2021 produced 2,525.
Harvard University team training in January 2022 accounted for 1,028 room nights, the chart shows. The total number of persons associated with the training was 187, the chart says.
An America Youth Cup event in February 2022 produced 1,239 room nights, the chart notes.