County Commission requests monthly updates on preparations for 2017 World Rowing Championships

Face-to-face presentations sought from SANCA president and director of the event

The director of the 2017 World Rowing Championships is seeking volunteers. Image from the Championships website
The director of the 2017 World Rowing Championships is seeking volunteers for the event. Image from the Championships website

Three other Sarasota County commissioners verbally joined Commissioner Carolyn Mason this week in a request that staff begin scheduling more regular updates from both the director of the 2017 World Rowing Championships and the president of the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates (SANCA), which manages events at Nathan Benderson Park.

“With the turnover at SANCA, there … needs to be reassurance [to the public] that this is well-run,” Commissioner Charles Hines pointed out to County Administrator Tom Harmer.

Hines was referring to the resignation last month of Paul Blackketter, who has been running the nonprofit SANCA as it has prepared for Benderson Park — a county-owned facility — to host the World Rowing Championships next year. Blackketter has agreed to stay at the helm of SANCA through Sept. 30, unless his replacement is named before then, the Bradenton Herald has reported.

In an April 28 email to SANCA board Chair Bill Robinson, Harmer wrote that county staff members “are extremely interested in the SANCA Board’s plans for both the transition period and the hiring of a new President,” noting, “Obviously maintaining the level of service in [Benderson] Park, managing the planned events, and continuing to prepare for the 2017 World Rowing Championships are critical expectations for both the County and SANCA.”

Commissioner Carolyn Mason. File photo
Commissioner Carolyn Mason. File photo

After Harmer copied the commissioners on Robinson’s April 29 response, Mason emailed Harmer, saying, “I am extremely disturbed” to have learned of the resignation through a newspaper story posted online.

Mason’s suggestion to her colleagues on May 11 followed a presentation to the commission by Meredith Scerba, director of the 2017 World Rowing Championships.

Harmer told the board it appeared the first of the monthly updates could be scheduled for June 8.

Referring to a one-on-one conversation she had with Scerba that preceded the May 11 briefing, Mason told her colleagues, “I went in with some concerns, and I must tell you that by the end, I was really very, very comforted that we’re almost there for 2017.“

She added, “I think these updates [are] going to put us more and more at ease as we get closer to that date.” Then she said she believed the commissioners also should hear regular reports from the SANCA board “about where they are with fundraising.”

During her presentation, Scerba pointed out that the revised budget for the international event is $9.3 million, but no additional money is expected from Sarasota County or Manatee County. Each already has committed $2.78 million from Tourist Development Tax (TDT) revenue, she noted. A professional fundraising firm — Shamrock Sports and Entertainment — has been hired to help bring in additional funds, Scerba said. The goal is to secure up to five major sponsors within the next six months, as well, she continued, while other revenue will come from ticket sales. Tickets will go on sale next month, she told the board.

Additionally, the Florida Sports Foundation has provided a $250,000 grant for the Championships, she noted.

Still, she said, “We have made very strong contingency plans … so we can continue to be a break-even event.”

Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo
Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo

“I think that the board needs to hear more about where they are” with fundraising each month, Mason pointed out. For example, she said, even though one of the facilities long planned for Benderson Park — a boathouse — is not expected to be completed before the Championships, the board has been told that structure is not necessary to the event’s success. Still, she indicated the board should be reassured by SANCA that the absence of a boathouse will not be a problem.

The new president of SANCA would be the best person — along with Scerba — to address the board, Mason continued. That way, the board would be getting the updates “from the horse’s mouth, if you will. Frankly, if anything goes south, it’s going to be on the five people sitting here,” she added.

She and Commissioner Christine Robinson will be stepping down from the board in November because of term limits.

“I think that Commissioner Mason makes a great point,” Chair Al Maio said. “I also would like to have periodic updates from SANCA. I think we’re entitled to that.”

Robinson told her colleagues, “I thought that one of the directives we gave was to get those periodic updates from SANCA …”

Harmer replied that quarterly reports are being provided, some of them in writing.

Carolyn Brown, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, confirmed that.

Meredith Scerba presented this schedule to the board on May 11. Image courtesy 2017 World Rowing Championships
Meredith Scerba presented this schedule to the board on May 11. Image courtesy 2017 World Rowing Championships

“I’m talking about face-to-face [updates],” Mason responded.

“I agree with you, Commissioner Mason,” Robinson told her, adding that those briefings need to begin before the board takes its annual summer break. They should continue on a regular basis after the break, she added, up until the 2017 event.

“We’ve got to carve out that half hour [on meeting agendas],” Maio agreed.

Paul Blackketter provided this information in his latest quarterly update from SANCA, dated April 20. Image courtesy Sarasota County
Paul Blackketter provided this information in his latest quarterly update from SANCA, dated April 20. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“Once a month is fine,” Hines said, and Robinson concurred with him about the frequency.

Harmer sought further clarification, though, asking whether the board members meant they wanted to hear from both Scerba and the SANCA president at each briefing.

County Administrator Tom Harmer. File photo
County Administrator Tom Harmer. File photo

Mason told him that was what she felt would be best.

To use a legal term — she is an attorney — Robinson told her colleagues the work of the two people is “inextricably entwined.” Knowing where things stand from their different perspectives would be preferable, she pointed out.

One month, Scerba may need 25 minutes and the SANCA president might need 5, Hines added. The next month, the time allocation might be reversed. “We need to know what’s going on out there. The public needs to know.”

Hines pointed out to Harmer, “You could be part of those presentations,” because Harmer attends the SANCA board meetings.

Hines also voiced his concern that too few people in the county understand what takes place at Nathan Benderson Park, which is on Cattlemen Road near University Parkway and the Mall at University Town Center. “We’ve got to get [the public] excited about [the Championships and other events].”

Scerba’s update

During her presentation, Scerba pointed out that the World Rowing Championships will be held from Sept. 23 to Oct. 1 at Benderson Park, which has the only Grade A rowing course in the United States. This will be the first time in 23 years that the U.S. has hosted the event, she emphasized. “This is America’s course,” she added of Benderson Park.

Organizers are expecting about 40,000 visitors from more than 60 countries, she said, and 1,700 of them will be “elite athletes.”

Meredith Scerba. News Leader photo
Meredith Scerba. News Leader photo

The event is projected to have a $25-million economic impact on Sarasota and Manatee counties, she continued, with an estimate of 40,000 room nights in 42 hotels. She and her staff are working with area attractions — including museums — to plan excursions for the athletes and other tourists who will be coming to Sarasota and Manatee counties.

The free opening ceremonies on Sept. 23, 2017, will celebrate the area’s circus heritage, she continued, adding that they will have “a very Ringling-ish feel.”

Because the World Rowing Championships competition will not take place all day each of the nine days at the park, she noted, ancillary regattas have been planned — and approved by the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron (FISA) — to draw even more public interest. (FISA owns the World Rowing Championships, she noted earlier.) Those events will include youth, collegiate, Masters and dragon boat teams. A reunion of World Rowing Championships alumni also will be part of the festivities.

Marketing is being targeted to family members and friends of the athletes who will be competing in the World Championships, she said, while other campaigns will seek to draw people from across the U.S. and from the community. Over the next year and during the period of competition, the plan is to spread the news locally about the event through non-rowing activities, such as farmers markets and car and yacht shows, she explained.

Finally, she pointed out, 2,000 volunteers will be needed to assist with the Championships. Anyone interested in helping may visit the website, she added.