County approves $5 million deal with Benderson

Family members and fans line the banks of Nathan Benderson Park in late April for a rowing regatta. Photo by Norman Schimmel

The Sarasota County Commission on Wednesday, Aug. 22, gave final approval to a plan to spend $5 million in state taxpayer money on improvements to the rowing center at Nathan Benderson Park.

Wednesday’s action allows the county to spend that additional $5 million on the rowing center. The county then will bill the Florida Sports Foundation (part of Enterprise Florida, the state’s economic development agency), which will reimburse Sarasota County quarterly.

“The county will be the ones in essence managing the funds,” says county Senior Planner Beth Carroll, but the Florida Sports Foundation will be overseeing the project. The state took the lead in drafting the contract language, according to Carroll. She calls the deal a “very typical grant funding agreement.”

The extra funding will go toward a “vehicular bridge” at the park, as well as a “wave attenuation system” and “preparation for future buildings,” according to a PowerPoint presentation Carroll delivered Wednesday.

According to Florida Sports Foundation President John Webb, the state’s interest is relatively narrow. He says the Foundation simply wants to make sure the county doesn’t take the money then walk away with it.

Fans line the banks of Nathan Benderson Lake for a rowing regatta in late April that brought thousands of people to Sarasota and Manatee counties. Photo by Norman Schimmel

The $5 million was allocated this spring by the Florida Legislature and approved by Gov. Rick Scott less than two weeks after Benderson Development President Randy Benderson co-hosted a fundraiser for the governor in Sarasota. Benderson Management Services donated $25,000 to Scott’s 2014 re-election bid in April.

Benderson’s Paul Blackketter, executive director of planning for the company, delivered an enthusiastic update on the project Wednesday, praising Scott, state Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, state Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, and U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, for advocating for the taxpayer money. Webb says it’s “pretty rare” for economic development projects to be funded like the Benderson center, which will receive general revenue monies. Blackketter called it  a “spectacular partnership.”

Blackketter also recounted a trip to Bulgaria last week, during which he met with International Federation of Rowing Associations officials and showed them the latest plans for the Benderson site. They suggested “minor tweaks” to the plans, but were happy overall, Blackketter said.

“You can tell they really want this course to come into fruition,” he told the commission, saying that older sites are spending millions to meet current standards, which the Benderson center will already meet once it’s up and running. He said the center should be ready to host world championship-level events by 2016 or 2017.

The commissioners had no real comments after the presentations. Commissioner Joe Barbetta quickly moved to approve the deal. “This is just getting better every day,” he said. “We’ve seen pretty substantial economic development already, and when it’s done it’s going to be one of the top three [rowing facilities] in the world.”

Commissioner Carolyn Mason seconded the motion and chimed in with a rare comment: “This really exemplifies the meaning of partnership and what that’s all about.” The motion passed unanimously.