SANCA conveys structures at Benderson Park to Sarasota County in conjunction with approval of new operating agreement

SANCA must give 24-hour ‘heads up’ to county staff in advance of any representative meeting with a commissioner

The Finish Tower has become the key landmark at Benderson Park. File photo

In conjunction with approval of a new operating agreement with the nonprofit organization that manages Nathan Benderson Park, Sarasota County has become the owner of several facilities at that park, including the Finish Tower that is critical to rowing events.

On Jan. 15, the commissioners voted unanimously to approve the new agreement with the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates (SANCA) and to approve the transfer to the county of the children’s playground and maintenance building at the park, as well as the Finish Tower. The county was to pay $1 for the latter, the bill of sale noted.

County staff had been working for months to gain the support of SANCA’s board on the document, which details SANCA’s management responsibilities, as well as payments from the county. Since SANCA began its oversight of the park in 2014, the facility has become known internationally for rowing competitions. However, the park also provides a number of recreational opportunities, with walking/running trails and watercraft rentals.

One facet of the new agreement that prompted a question from Commissioner Nancy Detert calls for SANCA to notify county staff the day before a SANCA representative plans to meet with a county commissioner.

Section 27.19 of the new agreement says, “SANCA shall notify the County’s Administrative Agent at least one (1) day in advance of any meeting between SANCA and any County Commissioners or regulatory agency providing funding related to this Agreement.”

Nicole Rissler. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), is identified in the agreement as that administrative agent, though she may designate someone else for that role.

“Why would you have to notify the county?” Detert asked Rissler.

That clause has become standard in almost all the county’s operating and use agreements, Rissler replied. “That’s just so staff knows [such meetings will be taking place].”

Often, Rissler continued, when a commissioner has an upcoming meeting with a SANCA representative, the commissioner will ask Rissler or her staff, “‘Is anything going on I need to know?’ … This [clause] allows us to actually have a heads up …”

“Aren’t we kind of grown up and call you if we need help?” Detert then asked Rissler.

“They have to give us the heads up about [any planned meetings with commissioners],” Rissler responded, referring to SANCA representatives.

“I’ve never seen that in my life,” Detert said of such a clause. “If someone thinks it’s a problem, I guess it’s a problem. It’s a little odd to put in a contract.”

Rissler reiterated her earlier point that it had become standard in such county documents.

Among other facets of the new three-year agreement, the county will pay SANCA an extra $1,189,480 in the first year for annual maintenance and operations at Benderson Park. For each of the subsequent two years, the amount will increase by 3%. The agreement is retroactive to Oct. 1, 2019, which was the start of the 2020 fiscal year.

During a County Commission budget workshop in May 2019, SANCA’s board chair, Ronald Shapo, requested a 10-year operating agreement. However, commissioners pushed back, telling him that SANCA needed to do a better job of promoting the park to the public.

Later, as an unofficial commission representative at SANCA board meetings, Commissioner Alan Maio began offering reports to his colleagues on the efforts to get a new operating agreement in place.

SANCA versus county staff

This graphic provides background about SANCA and earlier agreements with the county. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Jan. 15, in response to questions from Commissioner Christian Ziegler, Rissler explained that, in managing Benderson Park, SANCA is more capable than county staff would be in certain respects. “We’re not as nimble as they are,” she said of SANCA staff members.

Although SANCA representatives abide by the state’s open meetings and records laws, she continued, “They don’t have some of the additional regulations that we might have. … They’re able to negotiate and have larger partnerships with multiple organizations.”

For example, Rissler said, “Manatee County supports Nathan Benderson Park with a variety of different sponsorships and marketing.” Additionally, she noted, SANCA has private donors. Some of those might prefer not to contribute to the park, she added, if county staff took over the facility.

This graphic provides more details about the transfer of SANCA structures to the county. Image courtesy Sarasota County

A couple of years ago, Rissler noted, when the commission asked staff to determine approximately how much it would cost the county to operate the park, instead of paying SANCA to do that, she believed the additional expense was above $1 million. Moreover, she said, the county would need to hire another 17 or 18 full-time employees.

“Then we would be in the event planning business?” Ziegler asked.

“Absolutely,” she responded.

“We prefer to save that $1.1 million for something else,” Commissioner Maio said.

Commissioner Charles Hines thanked Ziegler for his questions. “So many people … don’t understand why this organization exists,” Hines said of SANCA. “They still think it’s Randy Benderson’s for-profit organization and this money’s going into [his] business. … I still get emails from people who think Randy Benderson’s making money [from SANCA],” Hines added.

Benderson is CEO of Benderson Development Co. The park is named for his late father.

Benderson Park is “a county park open to the public,” Hines stressed. SANCA is not the only nonprofit organization with which the county has contractual agreements in regard to use of county facilities, Hines continued. For example, Little League works with the county on events at other parks, Hines said.

“This one’s just a lot bigger,” Hines noted of the SANCA agreement.

North Cattlemen Road runs past Nathan Benderson Park, close to Interstate 75 and University Parkway. File photo

Hines encouraged Rissler to routinely take 30-second opportunities in public to point out what she had told Ziegler that morning.

Other facets of the commission action

During the negotiations with SANCA, Rissler continued on Jan. 15, the determination was made that the county would assume ownership — upon vote of the commission — “of all the park improvements made by SANCA and its related assets.” The county already owned the original improvements made to the facilities, she said. Among the latter, she noted, are Regatta Island; the wave attenuator, which is designed to create a smoother rowing surface on the lake during events; and the restrooms.

A memo provided to the commissioners in advance of the meeting explained, “The County has been advised by its bond counsel that a transfer of ownership from SANCA to Sarasota County would not adversely impact the tax-exempt status of the bonds which funded portions of the improvements, provided SANCA continues to occupy and use the Park for current purposes. Therefore, the Updated Agreement recognizes the County as the owner of all improvements within Nathan Benderson Park. SANCA has provided a bill of sale and quitclaim deed to these improvements. Pursuant to the Updated Agreement, any future improvements constructed within the Park would be subject to the same review process by the County’s bond counsel, after which the County, at its option, could take ownership, either during the term or when the Updated Agreement ends.”

The county will continue to inspect and maintain the three bridges on park property, Rissler pointed out, including the one on Cattlemen Road that runs parallel to the park.

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

One other facet of the new agreement calls for SANCA to keep $50,000 a year in the Capital Repair Fund for the park; it had a $40,000 balance in that fund as of Oct. 1, 2019, Rissler noted.

“SANCA is responsible for all capital expenses; however, SANCA may terminate the Updated Agreement with six months’ written notice if SANCA’s cost for a single capital repair or improvement would exceed the total of the amount SANCA is required to have set aside in the [Capital Repair Fund] for such projects, plus $150,000.00,” a Jan. 15 staff memo notes.

Finally, the new agreement calls for SANCA to allow a county commissioner to serve formally as a member of its board.

Last year, County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht won commission approval to seek a formal opinion from the Florida Commission on Ethics about such an appointment. Elbrecht explained that the attorney who handles such issues for that state organization had recommended against an appointment because of the nature of the agreement between SANCA and the county.

With no comment on Jan. 15 about that prior discussion, the commissioners quickly named Maio to the SANCA board.

Rissler confirmed for The Sarasota News Leader this week that the Florida Commission on Ethics ultimately had given its approval to such an appointment. The state organization issued that opinion on Dec. 11, 2019, the News Leader learned.

This is the summary of the Florida Commission on Ethics decision about a county commissioner serving on the SANCA board. Image courtesy Florida Commission on Ethics

“I would like to thank you, Nicole, and everyone who worked on this contract,” Commissioner Detert said after the presentation. Benderson Park had “a shaky start,” Detert continued; “misunderstood by the general public. … Things fell through the cracks … and it’s taken this many years and change of leadership over there. … I’m happy we’re to the point where we all get along.”

SANCA has had three CEOs. The first — Paul Blackketter, who formerly was a Benderson Development employee — left after acknowledging anger management issues that he needed to address. The current executive director, Stephen Rodriguez, came to the position in the summer of 2017, after working with the Florida Sports Foundation.

Detert also took the opportunity on Jan. 15 to extend her appreciation to SANCA and Randy Benderson for conveying the Finish Tower, the playground and the maintenance building to the county. The tower itself, she noted, cost more than $5 million. “It’s very impressive and generous, frankly,” she said of Benderson’s action.

(While he was still county administrator several years ago, Tom Harmer reported to members of the Siesta Key Association that the Benderson family had agreed to pay for the tower, so it would be completed in time for the park to host the 2017 World Rowing Championships.)