SANCA CEO reports on new initiative to build Benderson Park boathouse, which could be rented for variety of purposes to improve park finances

Benderson foundation has established $4-million matching grant fund for the project

A pie chart provides information about events hosted at Nathan Benderson Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates (SANCA) has struggled to become financially self-sufficient, one key piece missing from its original business plan has been a boathouse.

Several years ago, as the first SANCA president and CEO, Paul Blackketter would report from time to time to the county’s Tourist Development Council about his world travels as he researched such facilities at top rowing venues. That was in preparation, he said, for construction of a boathouse at Nathan Benderson Park, which SANCA manages for Sarasota County.

In late June, during a discussion of SANCA’s finances, County Commissioner Charles Hines acknowledged to the latest president and CEO of SANCA, Stephen Rodriguez, that the fact the boathouse never has been constructed is “not your fault but now falls on your shoulders.”

With the commission on June 20 having agreed to SANCA’s request for an extra $858,353 in extra funding for the 2019 fiscal year, the board members also voted unanimously to direct County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to work with the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources (PRNR) Department staff and SANCA’s staff in “sorting out a new agreement that’s fair to both sides,” as Chair Nancy Detert put it.

The initial agreement went into effect on April 15, 2014. The current one runs through Sept. 30, 2019. If SANCA does not breach it, a July county fact sheet explains, SANCA can continue to manage Benderson Park for up to 40 more years.

Rodriguez was back before the commission on Oct. 23 with an update on numerous initiatives SANCA has begun in an effort to improve its finances. Among them, he pointed out, is a campaign to raise the money for what no longer will be called a boathouse. Instead, Rodriguez said, it will be the Aquatic Nature Center. “Really, it’s much more than just a place to store boats.”

The playground at Benderson Park is a popular amenity, county staff has reported. Rachel Hackney photo

In reporting on his travels all those years ago, Blackketter described a facility that could host corporate retreats, for example, and other community gatherings. The lower level would be for the storage of boats and sculls; thus, the “boathouse” reference.

The Nathan Benderson Community Park Foundation, Rodriguez said on Oct. 23, has established a $4-million matching grant fund for the Aquatic Nature Center. The foundation will match contributions “dollar for dollar,” Rodriguez pointed out. “We will be moving forward with an aggressive capital campaign to focus on that amenity first.”

Rodriguez characterized the facility as “the heart and soul of our programming for the community.” One facet of the campaign, he noted, would be educating members of the public about what the Aquatic Nature Center would be and what it would offer to them.

He also reported that SANCA is “looking to add a full-time, 100% position dedicated to fundraising” for park amenities.

The target for SANCA to provide its updated business plan to the County Commission is Feb. 28, Rodriguez said. “We’ve been working with [county] staff and meeting quite frequently.”

In another effort to improve SANCA’s situation, he continued, the SANCA board will be expanding to 15 members. Three will be added at the November meeting, he noted.

The Benderson Park website on Oct. 26 showed just five board members, with Bill Robinson, co-owner of Fit2Run, still the chair.

Stephen Rodriguez. Image from the Benderson Park website

Several bylaw amendments will be on the board’s November meeting agenda regarding the structure of the board, Rodriguez said. Those amendments will include an adjustment of term limits.

“I’m very happy,” Commissioner Charles Hines said, about that news. “You don’t want this board dictating your day-to-day [options for merchandising, for example].” With more SANCA board members, Hines added, “Those ideas will come.”

Further, Rodriguez continued, the master plan for Benderson Park needs to be re-evaluated. The original one, he pointed out, was done “at a totally different time and, really, the park is very much different now.”
For example, Rodriguez noted, the county is working with Mote Marine Laboratory on Mote’s plan to lease and then, eventually own, 11.45 acres out of the 600 the park encompasses, so Mote can construct a new, $130-million aquarium.

SANCA and county staff members, he added, “need to determine “what other things can we dream of” Would wakeboard opportunities be a good fit for the park, perhaps, he asked. “Do we need pickleball courts?”

Budget considerations

In reviewing SANCA’s financial situation, Rodriguez acknowledged that a significant part of the nonprofit’s annual revenue is the $325,000 it receives from the county in reimbursements for its expenses in managing special events.

In 2014, Rodriguez pointed out, 75% of SANCA’s budget comprised the event expense reimbursement. In the past fiscal year, he said, the figure was just 21%.

The two grants Benderson Park won from the state — $2.5 million each — contained stipulations regarding the stimulation of economic impact in the county, he explained. “Obviously, we did everything possible to bring in events, no matter what the cost was [to host them]. … Now we’re kind of at a different point in time.”

In response to questions from Chair Detert, Rodriguez said the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) had approved all the reimbursements SANCA had sought under the terms of the state grant awards. In fact, he pointed out, the department had requested information and photos about SANCA events to include among success stories in the DEO’s annual report, he added.

Those state grant agreements will expire soon, he said. As a result, SANCA staff is looking at moving away from such big events as the 2017 World Rowing Championships. Doing more local events will be less expensive, he pointed out.

SANCA is working with Visit Sarasota County — the county’s tourism agency — and the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau on that goal, Rodriguez said.

The restrooms at Benderson Park are near the playground, overlooking part of the lake. Rachel Hackney photo

As it turns out, he continued, 35% of SANCA’s business has proven to be road races, with rowing accounting for only 25%.

Staff is working to create new events, he noted, such as the Turkey Trot that will be held in November, and working to bring in new events hosted by other organizations.

SANCA also is in the process of establishing a soccer skills program, he said, and considering beginning an archery program. Both would be conducted near the restrooms.

Another goal is to expand the park’s boater education program, he continued, with the park’s being able to sell boater licenses.

Referencing comments commissioners made during the June discussion, Rodriguez talked of the effort to boost T-shirt sales. SANCA has “done a lot of experimenting this year to the various demographics that come out. … [We] seem to have found the different items that are popular.” As a result, he said, merchandise sales have increased.

In fact, Rodriguez noted, during the 2018 World Rowing Masters Regatta in late September, “a little stuffed plush gator doll” was most popular with participants. “Nathan Benderson Park” is printed on those alligators, he added.

The World Rowing Masters event was conducted by the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron (FISA), which is the governing body of the sport of rowing, he noted. FISA initially announced that the number of competitors was the largest ever for a World Rowing Masters Regatta held outside Europe, with 2,000 people, Rodriguez pointed out. Then, after the event ended, he said, FISA said it was the largest FISA event held outside Europe. “We should be very proud of that. … Our park draws.”

Rodriguez noted that the average age of the competitors was 59.

And in other news from the park …

A page from a Sarasota County fact sheet about SANCA, produced in July, provides these details. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Referring to another topic raised in June, Rodriguez said that while SANCA has been in charge of food and beverage vending for most of the events at the park, staff is looking at expansion of that outside events. Research is underway that is expected to lead to the release of a Request for Proposals for a restaurant within the park, he added.

Further, SANCA has changed it fee structure for rental of the park, he said, basing it on the type of event and the amount of manpower and resources necessary, as well as the footprint of the event and the number of days the park will be used.

Rodriguez also pointed to improvements at the park and others that have been planned. New sunshades have been installed over the playground, he said, thanks to a contribution from the Benderson family. Benches have been put in various locations, and water fountains for both people and dogs have been placed around the playground.

SANCA also is working with county staff and a landscape architect on an opportunity for SANCA to accept a lot of trees that would be donated for planting on the park grounds, he pointed out.