Benderson Park lost about $19 million in expected economic impact in 2020 because of the novel coronavirus pandemic

Athletic events returning in 2021, SANCA CEO and COO tell members of the county’s Tourist Development Council, and park has begun hosting arts and cultural programs

Image courtesy of SANCA

The Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates Inc. (SANCA) has a goal of providing a minimum economic impact of $20 million each year from events at Nathan Benderson Park, Stephen Rodriguez, chief operating officer for the nonprofit, pointed out to members of the Sarasota County Tourist Development Council (TDC) on Jan. 14.

Prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, he said, the SANCA staff was considering the potential of raising that threshold, based on the most recent annual figures.

A chart he showed the TDC members pointed to a total of $28,667,047 in the 2017 fiscal year — though, adding in the impact of the World Rowing Championships, the figure ended up being $51,280,547. For the 2018 fiscal year, the economic impact was $32,574,316, while for FY 2019, it was $35,156,744.

“We’ve done very well,” Rodriguez said and then acknowledged, “In this business, you tend to have up-and-down years.”

The figures were calculated by Visit Sarasota County (VSC), the county’s tourism office, he noted.

This chart shows economic impact figures for SANCA over the past several years. Image courtesy of SANCA

Tomas Herrera-Mishler, president and CEO of SANCA, pointed out that the park has come far “from a humble beginning as a borrow pit with some great fishing … to one of the world’s great rowing venues.” Benderson Park is No. 1 in North America, he said, while it is “in the top 3 in the world.”

Benderson Park not only hosts regional, national and international rowing competitions, Herrera-Mishler continued, but it also draws other types of events, such as triathlons. SANCA manages the park on behalf of the Sarasota County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department.

In assessing the expected economic impact from events booked at the park for the 2020 fiscal year, Rodriguez said, SANCA estimated a total of $26,593,812. “We were heading into our biggest event time,” with a triathlon and Olympic Trials coming up, he pointed out, when all activities ceased because of the pandemic. As a result, he said, the park lost its entire season, resulting in a drop in economic impact that was put at $19 million. The park’s economic impact in the 2020 fiscal year ended up being $8,593,812, according to the data compiled by Visit Sarasota County.

The numbers of events booked at the park and the number of rowing teams scheduled to train at Benderson Park had been increasing over the years, Rodriguez told the TDC members, who were conducting their meeting in the County Commission Chambers in downtown Sarasota. “We were in the heart last year of the biggest training season that we had ever seen at the park,” Rodriguez said. “We were sold out for many weeks,” based on the number of college athletic teams the park could accommodate, Rodriguez explained. And then the pandemic struck.

“We hope to bounce back soon and continue to bring events here to Sarasota County,” he said.

Another chart he showed the TDC members noted the total number of event attendees and training participants in the 2014 fiscal year was 57,638 for 20 events. That rose to 92,275 by FY 2016, for 47 events, and then jumped to 125,353 in the 2018 fiscal year, for 104 events. The total for the 2019 fiscal year was 159,268, the chart said, with 131 events held at the park.

Staff had estimated total attendees and training participants at 161,728 for the 2020 fiscal year; however, the number ended up being 89,681. Instead of the 115 planned events, the park hosted 75.

This chart shows attendance and event figures for Benderson Park. Image courtesy of SANCA

Nonetheless, Rodriguez expressed excitement about the schedule for this fiscal year, which includes the USA Olympic Rowing Trials at the end of February. Additionally, he noted, the park “just landed” the USA Olympic Team Trials for canoe and kayak competition.

In response to a question, SANCA President and CEO Herrera-Mishler explained that the park lost all team-training events for this year, because many universities called off their sports seasons. “But we have a lot of assurances that they will be back next year.”

The SANCA staff has been undertaking considerable outreach to the representatives of the rowing teams at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the University of Michigan, among others, he noted, “so that they remember to come back.”

This graphic on the Benderson Park website offers information about team training. Image courtesy of SANCA

Among other events that the park has hosted in the past that are expected to return this year, Rodriguez said, are the Florida Scholastic Rowing Association State Championships and the NCAA Women’s Rowing Championships for Divisions I, II and III. The latter are planned for May, he said, followed by the USRowing Youth National Championships in June and the U.S. Dragon Boat Federation Club Crew National Championships, set for October. The Dragon Boat event originally was on the calendar for July 2020, he noted.

Not just a rowing venue

Tomas Herrera-Mishler. Image courtesy of SANCA

During his comments at the outset of the presentation, SANCA President and CEO Herrera-Mishler told the TDC members, “One of the silver linings of this dark time” is meeting the needs of arts and cultural organizations seeking outdoor performance venues, so attendees can practice social distancing.

He was very pleased to report that the Sarasota Orchestra is among those organizations with plans for events at the park, he continued. A concert scheduled for the previous weekend did have to be cancelled, he said, because woodwinds do not function well at temperatures below 60 degrees. Still, Herrera-Mishler added, the Orchestra has another program planned at the park in March.

Further, SANCA last year launched an event called Fiesta! Fridays, which presents live band performances and food trucks. That, too, allows for plenty of social distancing, he pointed out. “It’s a lot of fun,” he added. “All kinds of music every month.”

The Benderson Park website says Fiesta Friday is set for Jan. 22, Feb. 12 and March 19 on Regatta Island. It will run from 6 to 8:30 p.m.

Then Herrera-Mishler talked of the plans for the Sarasota Jazz Festival at the park in May. Manhattan Transfer will be on the program for May 13, on the main stage, he added. “I’m sure it’ll sell out quickly.”

Manhattan Transfer is scheduled to perform during the 2021 Sarasota Jazz Festival. Image from the Manhattan Transfer website

Herrera-Mishler expressed his appreciation to Jim Shirley, executive director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, for putting him in contact with representatives of arts organizations in the community. “It just made all of this click so quickly,” Herrera-Mishler said. “I think you’ll see a lot more entertainment happening at Nathan Benderson Park.”

Herrera-Mishler was named president and CEO of SANCA in August 2020. He told the TDC members 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, he continued, and later transitioned into urban design.

Before joining SANCA, he was CEO of the Balboa Park Conservancy in San Diego, Herrera-Mishler added. The Conservancy oversees 17 museums, as well as “the world-famous San Diego Zoo.”