SANCA to get less Sarasota County money for this fiscal year and 2022 fiscal year for managing Benderson Park

Commissioners also approve revised agreement with Mote Marine for new Science Education Aquarium at Benderson Park

A 2018 graphic shows some of the amenities that have been added to Benderson Park in recent years. County commissioners have encouraged staff members to remind the public of all the recreational opportunities available at the park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Sarasota County Commission has approved lower payments over the next two fiscal years to the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates Inc. (SANCA), which manages the county’s Nathan Benderson Park south of University Parkway.

In unanimously approving their March 9 Consent Agenda of routine business matters, the board members lowered the payment to SANCA from $1,189,480 for the 2021 fiscal year to $980,131. However, for the 2021 fiscal year — which will begin on Oct. 1 — the funding will go up to $1,261,393.33, as stated in the amendment the commission approved to the March 2014 agreement with SANCA “for operation, maintenance, management and execution of special events” at Benderson Park.

A March 9 staff memo noted that the park “hosts large national and international rowing events as well as regional rowing regattas, dragon boat races, running events and community gatherings.” Further, it said, the park “offers daily opportunities for general recreation on and off the water, such as stand-up paddle boarding, bicycling, jogging and picnicking.”

The county’s agreement with SANCA that was in place prior to the amendment called for the funding given to SANCA to rise 3% on Oct. 1, 2020 and again on Oct. 1 of this year. Oct. 1 is the day each new fiscal year begins.

The resolution the board members approved on March 9 says, “[T]he COVID-19 pandemic has had a detrimental and yet-unmeasurable financial and economic impact on organizations and industry both public and private …”

The resolution adds that, on May 29, 2020, county staff issued a letter that informed SANCA officials that staff was projecting “reduced revenue collections and associated allocations” and, therefore, would be recommending a reduced proposed budget allocation for SANCA” for the 2021 fiscal year.

Tomas Herrera-Mishler is president and CEO of SANCA. Image from the SANCA website

Tomas Herrera-Mishler, president and CEO of SANCA, signed the amended agreement on Sept. 9, 2020, the document shows.

A portion of the county’s Tourist Development — or “bed tax” — revenue is allocated to SANCA each year. That revenue is generated by people who rent accommodations for six months or less time throughout the county, including those who stay in Airbnb and properties.

The original tax levy of 2% went into effect on Nov. 1, 1988; it climbed to 5% on May 1, 2011.

For 10 fiscal years — from FY 2010 through FY 2019 — the Tourist Development Tax (TDT) revenue grew at an annual rate of 8.3%, county staff noted in a document provided to the county’s Tourist Development Council in February.

The largest year-over-year jump came in the 2012 fiscal year, when revenue ended up 22.7% higher than the funding the county received in FY 2011 — partly because of the extra half-cent of tax imposed in the spring of 2011.

However, given the economic impacts of the pandemic, the total TDT collections were down 10.2% at the end of the 2020 fiscal year, compared to the 2019 fiscal year, the same staff document showed.

A second slide provided to the Tourist Development Council members last month pointed out that the county staff projection for TDT revenue for this fiscal year and the 2022 fiscal year is $19 million. That is expected to climb to $19.6 million in FY 2023. Staff further projects that the funds will grow by 3% a year through FY 2026.

This graphic shows historical revenue data for the county’s Tourist Development Tax. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Updating the Mote Aquarium agreements

One other update in the SANCA amendment approved on March 9 included refined details about the portion of the park that Mote Marine Laboratory is leasing for its planned $130-million Mote Science Education Aquarium, the staff memo explained.

In a related matter, the commissioners on March 9 unanimously adopted a resolution that approved a new amendment to that lease and a companion, updated “Enabling Work Agreement” with Mote.

That item also was on the Consent Agenda.

On Jan. 30, 2019, the commissioners unanimously approved an omnibus agreement with Mote Marine that allowed Mote initially to lease property in Benderson Park and, ultimately, to purchase the site.

The March 9 amendment will allow Mote to begin “earthmoving and drainage infrastructure activities” to prepare the approximately 12-acre site for the construction of the aquarium, the staff memo explained. However, Mote must meet certain conditions before it can obtain county authorization to start construction, the March 9 staff memo pointed out.

This graphic shows the location of the planned Mote Aquarium at Benderson Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Nov. 13, 2020, Mote and county leaders gathered at Benderson Park for the groundbreaking of the new Aquarium

Months earlier — on April 30, 2020, the March 9 amendment noted — Mote and the county entered into a short-term lease with an initial term of two years, so “Mote can apply for the required land use and zoning changes” to enable it to construct and operate” the Aquarium. A new paragraph in the amended agreement acknowledges that county staff “will process such land use changes as may be required to allow a Science and Education Aquarium consistent with the [county’s] Comprehensive Plan and the Unified Development Code …” The Unified Development Code contains the county’s zoning and land-use regulations.

Mote is required to pay all fees associated with its land development applications.

Michael P. Crosby, president and CEO of Mote, signed the amendment on March 1, the document shows.

In a Frequently Asked Questions document on its website, Mote says, “Contingent on meeting our fundraising goals and obtaining the necessary land-use approvals, we expect to begin construction of Mote SEA by April 2021, with completion by early 2023.

This is the revised design for the Mote SEA, which was released in July 2020. Image courtesy Mote Marine

Mote leaders chose the Benderson Park site, that document adds, because more than 3 million Florida residents will be within a drive of 60 minutes or less from that location, “and the conservative projected visitor number for opening year is nearly 700,000, double our current annual attendance [at the aquarium within Mote’s facilities] on City Island [in the city of Sarasota].”

Additionally, Mote says that an average of 60,000 drivers pass the Benderson Park site each day, as the property is next to the Interstate 75 interchange with University Parkway. Thus, the document points out, 43 million drivers would be expected to see the Aquarium each year.

In searching through local bills filed in the 2021 session of the Florida Legislature, The Sarasota News Leader found nothing regarding a request for state funding this year for the Aquarium.