SANCA seeking $5 million from Legislature this year for Benderson Park boathouse

Total cost of facility pegged at just under $15 million, with a future request of the state planned, Florida House document shows

SANCA CEO Robert Sullivan. File photo

The Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates (SANCA) has requested $5 million from the Florida Legislature to assist with the construction of a 60,000-square-foot boathouse for Nathan Benderson Park, a project estimated at $14,634,800, according to documentation state Rep. Joe Gruters of Sarasota has submitted to the Florida House.

The document notes that another $3 million to $10 million would be sought from the state over the next five years.

The issue of the boathouse arose at the Feb. 7 Sarasota County Commission meeting as SANCA CEO Robert Sullivan provided an update on activities at the park.

Commissioner Nancy Detert explained that while she was still in the state Senate, she was told “we couldn’t have the [World Rowing Championships this year] without a boathouse, and we do not have a boathouse. Where do we stand on that issue?”

From what he understood, Sullivan replied, before he joined SANCA, “it was agreed the Finish Tower was the more necessary piece for [the championships].”

The five-story Finish Tower will house electronics used to time events at the park, along with the SANCA offices, an observation platform, public restrooms and a welcome center, according to the park’s website. A Feb. 7 county memo to the commission says it also will “house spectators and VIPs ….”

Sullivan told Detert on Feb. 7 that he had talked with Matt Smith, executive director of FISA — the governing body of the sport of rowing — and Smith had assured him that the boathouse was not necessary for the international event in September to be a success.

Then Detert inquired as to whether SANCA had asked for money for the boathouse from the Legislature this year.

Sullivan replied that a $5-million request had been made. “We’ve been told the Benderson Foundation will match whatever the [Legislature] provides.”

“OK,” Detert said.

State Rep. Joe Gruters. Image from the Florida House website

The document Gruters submitted with his bill says that Benderson Park “generated $18.8 million of economic impact in 2016, and expects to generate an additional $25 million in economic impact for the 2017 World Rowing Championships.” Those figures were based on data from Visit Sarasota County, the document noted.

Furthermore, the document says, “In 2016, 47 events were staged [at Benderson Park] with total athletes/participants and spectators of approximately 90,600. The World Rowing Championships, as well as increasing events once the boathouse is constructed, is expected to bring an additional 100,000 visitors.”

The document explains that the boathouse would be used to store rowing vessels for individuals and teams visiting Benderson Park for training purposes and competitive events; it would “house an extensive inventory of rowing skulls, kayaks, and other watercraft available for public use.”

A separate section of the document says the boathouse also will be used for “training classes, adaptive training, elite training, summer camps, and other programming, [and it will] provide a site for community and corporate training and social activities and private events.”

In response to a question about “documented show of support for the requested project in the community,” the filing cites “Letters from Sarasota County, the Sarasota County Economic Development Corporation, and the Sarasota County Chamber of Commerce.”

In years past, previous SANCA President Paul Blackketter told the County Commission and the county’s Tourist Development Council on numerous occasions that the boathouse would serve as the revenue engine for the park, because of the types of events it could host. During the Feb. 7 County Commission meeting, Sullivan explained that the SANCA staff is working on plans to market the Finish Tower “for banquets, receptions and meetings” when it is not being used for rowing events.

Further details on the Finish Tower

Construction continued on the Finish Tower in early January. Robert Hackney photo
A rendering shows the Finish Tower for Benderson Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Detert asked about the Finish Tower’s cost during Sullivan’s presentation to the board on Nov. 22, 2016, the day she and Commissioner Mike Moran were sworn-in as new board members.

Based on a document County Administrator Tom Harmer signed on Jan. 25, 2016, SANCA obtained a payment and performance bond in the amount of $5,860,771.50 for the project.

In March 2016, Harmer told attendees at the annual meeting of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) that the family of the late developer Nathan Benderson — for whom the park near University Parkway is named — contributed “almost $6 million” to enable the finish tower to be built on time for the 2017 World Rowing Championships.

As part of the approval of its Consent Agenda of routine business items on Feb. 7, the County Commission unanimously granted a SANCA request to name the structure the Nathan Benderson Finish Tower. A Dec. 19, 2016 letter from Sullivan to Harmer noted, “The Nathan Benderson Community Park Foundation has made a donation of the Finish Tower to SANCA for use at the Park in remembrance of Nathan Benderson.” Therefore, the letter said, the foundation requested the naming of the structure in his memory.

The Feb. 7 staff memo explains that the foundation was established to “raise funds for the completion of all of the capital improvements at [Benderson Park], along with the establishment and maintenance of a permanent endowment to support [the] park’s operations in perpetuity.”

Nathan Benderson was the founder of Benderson Development, whose headquarters he moved from Buffalo, N.Y. to Manatee County in 2004.

Update on team training and the Championships

A chart shows details about booking of teams for the World Rowing Championships. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During Sullivan’s Feb. 7 presentation, he also noted that SANCA — which manages Benderson Park — already had 50 teams scheduled to train at the facilities this spring. Last year, SANCA set a record with 57, he added. “We expect to have a lot more teams coming in” than those that already have made commitments, he told the board, given the fact that the park will host the World Rowing Championships this fall.

SANCA staff has talked with representatives of the Lithuanian team, for example, he continued, and leaders of the Australian team were in town the previous week to scout the park’s facilities.

“I have no doubts that we’ll be able to exceed last year’s record numbers,” Sullivan said.

Meredith Scerba, executive director of the World Rowing Championships, addressed the board next, pointing out that the event was 228 days away.

“We promised $25 million” in economic impact from the event, as well as 1,700 athletes from more than 60 countries, she said. “[W]e continue to work toward [those goals] on a daily basis, and our tracking continues to stay on that path.”

A graph shows projected team participation. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Already, she continued, staff has booked 5,400 room nights, with a total of 27 teams expected to have put deposits down by the end of February. Another 17 teams have made verbal commitments, she said, adding that the goal is to have 24 secured by June, with the last of the teams expected to sign up shortly before the event begins.

Indicating that her staff had been concerned about ticket sales — which began in September —not being as high as expected, Scerba told the board that FISA staff had explained just recently that rowing teams generally let their coaches go after the Olympics. (The most recent Summer Games were held in Rio in 2016.) After new coaches are hired, Scerba said, they have to settle on their team members.

A chart shows dates of events planned for the World Rowing Championships. Image courtesy Sarasota County

April and May is the general time frame, she continued, when families will learn whether their children will be participating on teams. “So we expect a major increase and a really big hit on ticket sales” in late spring, she noted, along with hotel room reservations.

Scerba also pointed out that nine international TV stations — including ones in Germany, China and Great Britain — plan to show events live from the World Rowing Championships. Although NBC Sports will provide coverage, she added, it will be taped for delayed showing. She noted that the championships will be taking place during the Major League Baseball and college football seasons.