Commissioner Detert raises prospect that County Commission’s could revisit funding commitment for boathouse/indoor sports complex at Benderson Park

Comments come during staff presentation to Tourist Development Council

In early May, the Sarasota County commissioners voted unanimously in support of plans for construction of a boathouse and indoor sports complex at Nathan Benderson Park, which the county owns near University Parkway.

In underscoring that support, they agreed to dedicate to the project up to $20 million out of the revenue that will be produced from the sixth penny of the county’s Tourist Development Tax, or “bed tax.”

The tax climbed from 5% to 6% on Oct. 1, thanks to a separate County Commission vote this year. The tax is charged on the rentals of accommodations for six months or less time. (See the related article in this issue.)

However, on Oct. 13, following a presentation to members of the county’s Tourist Development Council (TDC), the chair of that advisory board, Commissioner Nancy Detert, cautioned that the vote on county funding for the boathouse/indoor sports complex might have to be revisited.

“I think people need to start lowering their expectation of how much money we’ve got to work with,” Detert pointed out, “because the economy is tanking,” construction expenses have jumped, and the county may need to use some of its revenue in the recovery from Hurricane Ian’s strike in late September.

TDC member Angus Rogers, the developer of the Art Ovation hotel in downtown Sarasota, said at one point that he would expect that the people who have been working on the preliminary aspects of the project must have some idea of its overall cost.

Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), had explained that, until a refined concept for the boathouse/indoor sports complex had been completed, she was unable to do more than estimate the facility’s expense. In response to Roger’s comments, Rissler put the figure in the $40-million to $50-million range.

She also stressed to the TDC members that the county commissioners already had agreed in May that the county’s funding support for the undertaking would not exceed the $20-million figure from the Tourist Development Tax revenue.

The rest of the money, Rissler said, “will absolutely have to be raised from private contributions and grants, and that’s been made very clear to our nonprofit partners and our private partners [in sports tourism].”

When Rogers asked how confident Rissler was that the private sector would cover the rest of the expense, she told him, “This park has significant private-dollar support …” Further, she pointed out, the Benderson family already has committed itself to helping with the initiative. Members of the family are working on the amount they will be willing to provide for the construction, she added.

Years ago, with private fundraising efforts having failed to garner sufficient support to pay for the Finish Tower at the park, the Benderson family gave close to $6 million for that building’s construction. The tower was considered to be the most important facility necessary to ensure a successful World Rowing Championships at the park in September 2016.

Rissler also told the TDC members on Oct. 13 that the board of directors of the Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy “already is working very hard on what [its] capital campaign is going to look like, to raise those additional dollars [for the boathouse and indoor sports complex].”

The Conservancy formerly was known as the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates Inc. (SANCA). The nonprofit manages Benderson Park, including the events conducted on the grounds.

Detert asked whether the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) is “going to participate financially in this project.”

Rissler replied that staff had had “multiple conversations with Manatee County [leaders]” about the proposal.

“Considering this park’s at the northernmost point of Sarasota County,” Detert continued, “it benefits Lakewood Ranch more than it benefits anything south of there, which is Sarasota County. I would hope and expect [Manatee County leaders] to participate,” she added.

In her comments, Detert also noted that, over the past two years, “Every proposed [construction] project [presented to the County Commission] was $20 million.” Given the rise in construction expenses and inflation, she indicated, what was put at $20 million seems to have gone up to $100 million.

Before the commission formally commits funds to the boathouse/indoor sports complex, Detert added, “We’re going to have to see some real heavy data” about the return on that investment.

Rissler did note during her presentation that the Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy has hired a design firm — Fawley Bryant Architecture of Sarasota — to handle the second phase of the feasibility study for the project. “They are working as we speak.”

She indicated that that work should provide a better estimate of the facility’s cost.

Staff will present the results of the Phase II efforts to the County Commission and to the Tourist Development Council after they become available, Rissler added. That probably will be later this year, she said.

Praise for the park

At the start of her presentation, Rissler showed the TDC members a video with scenes from a multitude of events held at the park earlier this year, with facts about the dates and the number of participants.

Detert called that “very impressive,” adding, “It’s been a decade in the making.” Detert then said that Stephen Rodriguez, CEO of the Conservancy, has been a significant factor in that success.

In years past as a commissioner, Detert voiced reservations about increasing county funding for the park. She has pointed out that when she was in the Florida Legislature prior to her first campaign for County Commission, she dealt with numerous SANCA requests for state money to pay for construction at the park.

“They finally fulfilled the vision and the promise in a big way,” Detert said on Oct. 13, referring to the Conservancy leaders. “I think we’ve now got public acceptance and approval and appreciation of the park.”

Vice Chair Norman Schimmel told his colleagues, “I was there at the start” of rowing competitions at Benderson Park. Referring to the park’s ability to host a wide array of events, he said, “I think [it] is the finest [venue] in the United States.”

The marketing of the indoor sports complex will be very important, he added.

The background

During her May 10 presentation to the County Commission about the Phase I feasibility study for the boathouse and indoor sports complex, Rissler noted the array of stakeholders who had been consulted about the potential project.

The Conservancy hired a Chicago-based firm, Johnson Consulting, to handle the study itself.

In approving their 2022 Strategic Plan for the county, the commissioners in December 2021 called the boathouse and indoor sports complex a “high priority,” as staff has noted.

The Phase I feasibility study report said that Johnson Consulting had found “a strong and growing market demand for indoor sports complex utilization.” It added, “There is a significant void of available indoor sports complex space in the marketplace.”

Further, the study said, “Full calendar utilization and booking is anticipated.”

The proposal for the facility calls for approximately 100,000 square feet of “net operable competition space,” with a minimum of eight full-size basketball courts convertible to 16 volleyball courts and 24 pickleball courts. It also would include at least four multi-purpose rooms, a sports performance training area encompassing as much as 10,000 square feet, 10 boat bays, an elevated walking track, locker rooms with showers and a “Concession/Café Bar Concept,” as noted in a PowerPoint presentation Rissler showed the county commissioners in May and the Tourist Development Council members on Oct. 13.

Rissler told the TDC members that the lack of a major indoor sports complex is “the biggest shortfall we have … It’s a huge hole for us. … There’s just not enough indoor space” to satisfy the demand, she stressed.

The Johnson Consulting report also pointed out, “Since 2014, [Benderson Park] has generated more than $200 million of economic impact to our region. [The park] continuously hosts numerous international and national events, identifying and capitalizing on opportunities to expand sport disciplines that generate a positive [rate of investment] for Sarasota’s economy.

“Amplifying these large-scale events are hundreds of teams training, 5Ks and community events,” the report continued. “Over the course of this time, [Nathan Benderson Park’s] NBP’s portfolio of programs and the region’s economies [have] grown exponentially as well. Today, almost 7,000 participants representing a wide range of demographic and socioeconomic status participate in lessons, camps, group fitness classes, and recreational and competitive rowing and paddling teams. Most importantly, community members call Nathan Benderson Park their home. The park is a place for runners, walkers, cyclers and more to connect with nature, relax and stay healthy 365 days a year.”

Then, in addressing the boathouse, the report said that that facility’s “mission … is clear. Any world-class rowing/paddling venue evolves to have a boathouse. The reason this is important, especially in Florida, is convenience and protection of these very expensive boats and equipment. The boathouse will attract teams to headquarter their training and operations out of Sarasota-Manatee, and will provide dry storage for boats, equipment and office space for teams and staff. The addition of these types of facilities will increase the prestige of the Park, which will allow the Park to continue scaling up events and programming.”

In regard to the indoor sports facility, the report said that that building “is also contemplated to help amplify the image of the complex to help in many ways as noted below:

  • 1. “To emphasize and add to the role of this unique venue by adding amenities.”
  • 2. “To offer amenities to increase athletes’ capabilities and performance in rowing/paddling as well as other sports.
  • 3. “To make operations more effective for the show promoter/event organizer to reduce their event set up costs such as building tents and temporary structures
  • 4. “To offer a venue to justify high dollar opportunities for sponsors and investors
  • 5. “To provide a venue for local use on an infill basis as appropriate.”
    Further, the report pointed to the design of the park and its location next to Interstate 75, the University Town Center District and the site of Mote Marine Laboratory’s Science Education Aquarium, whose construction the County Commission formally cleared with a vote in July. “[T]he site is evolving to be a major east and north county demand concentration in the middle of a rapidly growing area.”

Moreover, the report noted, Benderson Park is within a 90-minute drive of “Tampa and its general metro areas,” while Miami, Orlando and Jacksonville “all fall within the 4-hour drive time making Sarasota well positioned for drives to activities.”