SANCA representatives say they will be ready for World Rowing Championships

Finishing tower construction expected to get under way ‘very shortly,’ SANCA president tells Manatee and Sarasota commissioners

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

In just her third week serving as event director of the 2017 World Rowing Championships, Meredith Scerba took the opportunity of the Oct. 29 joint meeting of the Sarasota and Manatee County commissions to introduce herself. However, during her presentation, the most pointed question ultimately went to Paul Blackketter, president of Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates Inc., (SANCA), the nonprofit organization that manages Nathan Benderson Park, where the championships will be held.

“Are we going to have a facility like we committed to at the very beginning?” Manatee Commissioner Carol Whitmore asked Scerba, referring to the agreement between the two county boards and the Federation Internationale des Societes d’Aviron (FISA), the governing body of the sport of rowing.

Scerba deferred to Blackketter, who has traveled the globe over the past several years on behalf of the counties and Benderson Park in preparation for hosting the 2017 international competition and other major events.

Blackketter told the boards that staff was in the final stages of completing the contract for the finishing tower and that he hoped construction would begin “very shortly,” adding, “possibly in the next couple of weeks.”

Plans do call for the tower to be completed by the summer of 2016, Blackketter said.

An April 2015 rendering shows the finishing tower. Image courtesy Sarasota County
An April 2015 rendering shows the finishing tower. Image courtesy Sarasota County

SANCA’s new offices will be in that structure, which was designed by Sarasota architect Guy Peterson, Blackketter told the boards during their meeting at the Bradenton Convention Center. The tower will be located at the finish line for the races — thus its name — and it will house timing equipment, based on comments Blackketter has made in the past.

“We don’t have to have the boathouse,” he added.

Paul Blackketter. News Leader archive
Paul Blackketter. News Leader archive

Blackketter has reported to local government leaders in both counties over the past several years that the boathouse will include meeting space that can be rented to users and it will serve as a support structure for park events. Because of its design to accommodate groups for a multitude of functions, it has been seen as a major revenue source for the park, Blackketter has pointed out.

“We are on track time-wise,” Blackketter added of planning for the World Championships.

When Whitmore asked for clarification about the status of the boathouse construction, Blackketter responded that SANCA still is working toward have it completed by September 2017. “The boathouse design could be initiated very shortly,” he said. “The goal is to have all those things in place by 2017.”

The event director

At the outset of the discussion, which was listed on the agenda as an update on the World Rowing Championships, Scerba explained her background and talked of her excitement about joining SANCA.

She served as the senior vice president of marketing and operations for the Greater Cleveland (Ohio) Sports Commission for 10 years prior to winning the SANCA post. In that capacity, she oversaw the planning, budgeting, marketing, communications and operations for that commission, Sarasota County Assistant Administrator Lee Ann Lowery wrote of Scerba in an Aug. 26 email to county staff, announcing Scerba’s hiring. Lowery added that Scerba “has significant experience in all aspects of event management and has an impressive track record in attracting and producing successful events for the [Greater Cleveland Sports] Commission.”

Scerba told the boards she also served as executive director of the 2013 National Senior Games, which had a $4.3 million budget.

Prior to her role with the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission, she worked in sales for the Cleveland Cavaliers, she added.

Her $150,000 SANCA salary is split evenly between Sarasota and Manatee counties, Sarasota County spokesman Drew Winchester told The Sarasota News Leader in response to a question.

Regarding the 2017 World Championships at Benderson Park, Scerba said, “We’re going to put on a party, and it’s going to be a big party.” Referencing the well-known song by Florida entertainer and entrepreneur Jimmy Buffett, she characterized the event as “Cheeseburger in paradise fun” spread over nine days.

Benderson Park will host the World Rowing Championships in 2017. News Leader archive
Benderson Park will host the World Rowing Championships in 2017. News Leader archive

During the brief time she has held her new job, Scerba said she had been focused on revising the financial planning to create a “realistic budget … to do this event at the grandest scale.”

She added that this will be the first World Rowing Championships in the United States in 23 years, “so all eyes are on us.”

In response to a question from Manatee Commissioner Charles B. Smith, Scerba said hotel rooms for all the athletes have been booked. Representatives of some of the nations that will be participating recently have been visiting the community to check on facilities, she noted, making sure the accommodations comply with their needs. For example, she continued, Team Canada members came to the area last week.

A committee of representatives from all the hotels involved in the event has been meeting regularly, she added, stressing that enough rooms are available for the 40,000 people SANCA hopes to draw.

The Benderson Park website shows locations of the planned facilities. Image from the website
The Benderson Park website shows locations of the planned facilities. Image from the website

Additionally, she noted that she has been working with catering firms to assist hotels that cannot provide meals for the athletes. “These are Olympic athletes,” she pointed out of the rowers expected for the World Championshps. Not only do they have needs related to their cultures, she continued, but they also have specific food needs.

When Smith asked how far away the most distant participating hotels are, Scerba told him she was not yet familiar enough with the area to answer him. However, she said that information is on the SANCA website, and she promised to get it to him. Altogether, she added, 23 hotels are providing rooms.

The website lists the locations of the accommodations, according to a News Leader check. They range from University Parkway (3 miles from the park, the website says), to downtown Bradenton (16 miles from the park, according to the website), to Ellenton — just north of Bradenton — and to Venice (20 miles form the park, the website notes).

When Manatee Commissioner Robin DiSabatino asked about transportation for the athletes, Scerba said she had met with Rocky Burke, director of Sarasota County Area Transit. “I have a lot of experience transporting athletes,” Scerba added, noting that 11,000 of them participated in the National Senior Games in 2013 in Cleveland when she was executive director of that event.