SANCA board names new CEO to replace Sullivan

Stephen Rodriguez leaving the Florida Sports Foundation to begin work in August, SANCA chair announces

Stephen V. Rodriguez. Image from the Florida Sports Foundation website

The senior vice president of the Florida Sports Foundation will be the new president and CEO of the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates (SANCA), which manages events at Nathan Benderson Park.

Stephen V. Rodriguez was named to the position on July 19, Bill Robinson, chair of the SANCA board, announced in a press release. The board met the same day on Regatta Island at Benderson Park, according to the park website.

Rodriguez has more than 25 years of experience in event marketing and management, combined with more than 13 years of “professional experience in the sports industry,” the news release says.

Rodriguez will take the place of Robert Sullivan, who announced his retirement from SANCA in May. Sullivan had indicated his plans to stay with the nonprofit through the World Rowing Championships at Benderson Park, which will be held at the end of September. However, the news release says Rodriguez “will officially take the reins in August.”

County Administrator Tom Harmer notified the County Commission of the news in a July 19 email. The county owns Benderson Park, but it will co-host the World Rowing Championships with Manatee County.

Rodriguez has been senior vice president of the Sports Foundation since 2010, the release notes. During his 18 years of employment with that organization, “he was responsible for administration, event planning, finance, fundraising, government relations, program management, tourism and economic development,” the release points out. “He is also the longest standing director of the Sunshine State Games and the Florida Senior Games,” the release adds.

Prior to joining the foundation’s staff, the release continues, Rodriguez was employed by the Palm Beach County Sports Commission and Sports Institute. While in that position, he was responsible for the administration of the commission’s Unified Youth Sports Program for the county and the Lou Groza Collegiate Place Kicker Award, in addition to hosting events, such as the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Spring Championship Games and the NPAL Baseball World Series, the release notes.

Before he joined the Palm Beach County Sports Commission staff, the release adds, Rodriguez was the office manager and membership chair for the USA Track & Field/Florida Association. Rodriguez is a University of Florida graduate, the release notes.

SANCA Board Chair Bill Robinson. Image from the Nathan Benderson Park website

Robinson, the SANCA board chair, called Rodriguez “a perfect fit” for Benderson Park, according to the release. “Stephen’s expertise in sports promotion combined with his background [in] marketing the State of Florida as a premier sports destination meshes impeccably with SANCA’s mission,” Robinson said in the release.

After hosting the World Rowing Championships this year, Benderson Park will be the site in 2018 of the NCAA Women’s Rowing Championships and the World Rowing Masters Regatta, the release points out.

“Paul [Blackketter] created [Nathan Benderson Park], Bob [Sullivan] has maintained it, and we are confident Stephen will propel it into the future!” Robinson added in the release.

Blackketter was the first CEO of SANCA. He resigned in 2016 after a YouTube video began airing, showing his profanity-laced upbraiding of a person on the park’s grounds. In remarks later to the SANCA board, Blackketter acknowledged that he had been dealing with anger management issues.

When Sullivan last appeared before the Sarasota County Commission for an update on SANCA activities and fundraising — on May 23 — no one mentioned his announcement that he planned to leave the position of SANCA CEO. County Administrator Harmer had delivered the news to the board in a May 17 email.

Sullivan began working for SANCA on Aug. 15, 2016.

In a statement SANCA released in May, Sullivan wrote, “I came to the Sarasota area to retire and immediately fell in love with the area, including Nathan Benderson Park.

SANCA CEO Robert Sullivan. File photo

“When the job opportunity came up at the park, I felt that it was a perfect match of my past experience and becoming involved with my new hometown,” he continued. “With the World Rowing Championships coming in September, followed by next year’s World Rowing Masters Regatta, I felt that now was the correct time to look to the future and insure a smooth transition of leadership.”

Sullivan added, “I feel that I have succeeded in taking the park to the next level and will stay on until the end of this year to ensure that there is a smooth transition.”

During his opening remarks to the commission on May 23, Sullivan said, “It’s been quite a year.” In joining the SANCA staff, he added, “I wanted to create some stability.”

Prior to taking the job, he spent 11 years managing the Multi-Purpose Events Center (MPEC) in Wichita Falls, Texas.

SANCA and its finances

SANCA has not been successful in raising the funds it needs to build a boathouse, which originally was envisioned as the key element in the nonprofit’s financial future. When he was still SANCA CEO, Blackketter often mentioned to local government leaders that he was traveling the world on Benderson Development Co.’s behalf, researching the best facilities upon which to model a boathouse for Benderson Park.

The boathouse not only would serve as a place to store equipment, it primarily would be used as a venue for all types of community events, Blackketter said. Rent from those functions would make up a considerable portion of SANCA’s revenue, he explained.

SANCA submitted a funding request to the Florida Legislature this year for $5 million to assist with the construction of the 60,000-square-foot facility, but it failed to win approval of any of that money. (Sullivan told the County Commission in May that a standing offer of $5 million is “on the table” if someone wishes to match that, to enable the project to proceed.) The total cost of the boathouse was estimated at $14,634,800 in the material state Rep. Joe Gruters of Sarasota filed with the Florida House. Gruters’ document noted that another $3 million to $10 million would be sought from the state over the next five years for the project.

A 2012 rendering provided to the County Commission showed plans for the layout of Benderson Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

SANCA did win a $2.5-million grant from the state this year for infrastructure it needs for the World Rowing Championships.

With the Finish Tower complete at the park, Sullivan told the County Commission on May 23, plans are underway to rent some of its space to the public, in an effort to make up the projected funding gaps in future SANCA budgets. The five-story structure houses electronics used to time events at the park, along with the SANCA offices, an observation platform, public restrooms and a welcome center, according to the park’s website.

In accord with an agreement between SANCA and the county, the county will cease its financial support of the nonprofit at the end of the 2018 fiscal year. County spokesman Drew Winchester confirmed for The Sarasota News Leader earlier this year that close to half of SANCA’s budget is made up of funding that comes from the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department.

Commissioner Nancy Detert has complained that SANCA employees failed to provide her financial documents when she requested them while she was serving in the Florida Senate. During presentations by both Sullivan and Meredith Scerba — executive director of the 2017 World Rowing Championships — Detert has asked numerous questions about fundraising for the September event and about SANCA’s budgets.