With Sarasota County’s funding for Benderson Park to end in late 2017, outgoing commissioner suggests detailed discussion on finances

Board of SANCA, which manages the park, does not expect to have its key moneymaking tool — a boathouse — in place by that time

Bill Robinson. News Leader photo
Bill Robinson. News Leader photo

The number of annual events at Nathan Benderson Park almost doubled from 2014 to 2016, and the economic impact on Sarasota County was estimated at $20 million in the 2016 fiscal year, Bill Robinson, chair of the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates (SANCA), has reported to the Sarasota County Commission.

And while SANCA — which manages the park for the county — had about $1.9 million in revenue in FY16, it still has no concrete plans for the construction of a boathouse, which was foreseen as the park’s most important moneymaker, Robinson acknowledged during an Oct. 25 presentation to the board.

The boathouse, he explained, would serve as a special events complex — including weddings and expos. It also would serve as a storage facility for boats used in rowing competitions and those of the general public, who would be able to rent space on the bottom level of the structure.

Nonetheless, Commissioner Christine Robinson reminded her colleagues, when SANCA and the commission inked an agreement a few years ago calling for county subsidies to the park’s operations to end at the close of the 2017 fiscal year, the boathouse was expected to have been completed by then.

“We are working hard to get to the point where we are self-sustaining,” Bill Robinson said in response to the commissioner’s questions. Budget projections have put annual income from use of the boathouse at $1 million, he added. “That’s a big part of our future.”

Commissioner Robinson will be leaving the board in November as a result of term limits, she also reminded her colleagues, but she suggested, “Some sort of discussion needs to happen … about that [budget] plan [for SANCA], about what’s going to happen next.”

When the County Commission was discussing the agreement with SANCA in the 2012-2013 timeframe, Commissioner Robinson continued, it was not easy to be able to foresee what the park’s financial situation would be in 2018. However, she added, “Scrambling to [be self-supporting] is not a good thing. Use the next year to plan …”

Past, present and future

Given the trend of the past three fiscal years, Bill Robinson said, the economic impact on the community from park events in 2017 and future years will be “almost Super Bowl size,” in the range of $50 million to $60 million.

Though the 2017 World Rowing Championships is projected to have a $25-million impact on Sarasota and Manatee counties, he pointed out, that figure accounts for just half of the $50 million total expected in the 2017 fiscal year.

Moreover, he said, SANCA will host the World Rowing Masters Regatta and the NCAA Rowing Championships in 2018. The former, he noted, will be bigger than the World Rowing Championships.

The World Rowing Championships website features this banner. Image from the website
The World Rowing Championships website features this banner. Image from the website

Among facets of his presentation, Robinson provided more figures and facts:

  • In the 2014 fiscal year, 25 events were budgeted for, and the park hosted 26, with an economic impact of $10 million.
  • During the 2015 fiscal year, 33 events were projected, and the park had 34; the economic impact was $25 million.

That was an especially big year, Robinson noted, because of the International Dragon Boat Races hosted by the International Breast Cancer Paddlers Commission. “They want to come back,” he added of the participants.

  • For the 2016 fiscal year, the expectation was for 43 events, and the park hosted 47; the economic impact was more than $20 million.
  • During the 2017 fiscal year, 53 events were anticipated for budget purposes, but so far, 55 have been booked.
  • For the 2018 fiscal year, early projections show about 65 events will be held at the park, which is located near University Parkway.

In each case, Bill Robinson pointed out, the park exceeded the amount of economic impact that had been projected as part of its budget. “We are extremely proud [of the figures],” he said.

Although a year has only 52 weeks, he explained, SANCA’s staff can manage as many as three events at one time. For example, he said, a rowing competition, a 5K run and a triathlon all are possible in one timeframe if handled well.

Benderson Park (upper part of the photo) is visible in March 2014, adjacent to the Mall at University Town Center, which was under construction. Photo courtesy Sarasota County
Benderson Park (upper part of the photo) is visible in March 2014, adjacent to the site of the Mall at University Town Center, which was under construction. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

Benderson Park also has continued to see growth in the number of college and university rowing teams that come there for training, Bill Robinson continued. In the 2014 fiscal year, the number was 19; in FY15, 32; and in FY16, 59.

“Most of ’em are from the Northeast,” he noted. Among the universities represented have been Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, Columbia and Duke, he told the board. The teams comprise “anywhere from 20 to 40 to 50 [people].”

He walked into a Bradenton restaurant for lunch one day this year, he said, and saw a group of about 10 people wearing Harvard’s school color of crimson. They were members of the rowing team, staying in the area to train, he noted. They thanked him for the ability to use the park, he added, and many said their parents had come to the area to visit while they were here.

That could lead to some of the parents buying winter homes or even year-round homes in Sarasota or Manatee County, Robinson pointed out.

“The public dollars that have gone into this are well worth it,” Commissioner Charles Hines said of the park. “There wasn’t an easy model to follow for this,” he added, referring to the board’s investment in facilities and the management agreement with SANCA.

Looking for new opportunities

Bob Sullivan. News Leader photo
Bob Sullivan. News Leader photo

As part of his presentation, Bill Robinson also introduced the new SANCA CEO, Bob Sullivan.

“We spent a tremendous amount of time — a lot of interviews — to get the right person,” Robinson added of the SANCA board members’ decision to hire Sullivan.

In his eight weeks on the job thus far, Sullivan said, he had spent three on the road, visiting other rowing facilities. His goal, he continued, is to draw as many people as possible to the park. “I encourage people to come forward with different ideas.”

As an example of his flexibility in approaching potential use of the venue, Sullivan told the board he once staged a Metallica concert in an Illinois cornfield that drew 35,000 people. He hastened to add, “not that I’m going to have Metallica at the park.”

Commissioner Carolyn Mason told him and Bill Robinson that, when she also steps down from the County Commission in November because of term limits, she plans to volunteer with a diversity rowing organization based in Newtown; she encouraged them to work with the group.

“When I first saw that lake,” Mason told Bill Robinson, “I could see the possibilities. … I could see where it would be opened up to the Greater Sarasota community and the world …”

She added that she also “saw the opportunity to open it up to people who look like me.”

Sullivan replied that he has had met twice with the diversity rowing group and had another session planned with its representatives that afternoon. They were close to finalizing a deal, he said, adding that he wants to see every demographic in the community using the park.

“I’m glad to hear you say what you just said,” Mason responded.

World Rowing Championships update

During a separate presentation on Oct. 25, Meredith Scerba, executive director of the World Rowing Championships, reported to the board that 10 representatives of FISA — the international governing organization for rowing — recently spent six days in the community, “making sure that they are comfortable with everything that we have done,” both in and outside the park, to prepare for the 2017 event.

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

“They’re thrilled with the progress that’s been made to date,” Scerba added. “They gave us a gold star at the end of the week.”

Furthermore, she said, she and her team will participate in a “tabletop exercise” in December that will focus on a wide range of emergency planning scenarios. Homeland Security officials and representatives of Sarasota and Manatee counties’ Emergency Management Services staffs will be part of that exercise, too, she pointed out.

She and her staff also are putting together Requests for Proposals for tents, grandstand seating and security and medical services providers, she continued. The tents, she noted, will be the sturdy type with hard walls.

Additionally, she said, it appears NBC Sports will televise the 2017 World Rowing Championships in the United States, while five different international TV companies will feature worldwide broadcasts of the event.

Scerba further noted that a wide variety of volunteers will be needed to assist with the Championships — from hotel and airport greeters to ticketing and registration staff. Interested people may sign up on the Championships website, she added; the earlier someone has put his or her name on the list, the more likely it will be that the person will be able to work during the times and days the person would prefer.

Additionally, Scerba unveiled a costume for the event’s pelican mascot, noting that she is seeking volunteers to portray the mascot in the community to help spread the word about the Championships. A competition among schoolchildren will be held to name the mascot, she told the board.

A slide Scerba showed the board featured an image of the pelican mascot. Image courtesy 2017 World Rowing Championships
A slide Scerba showed the board featured an image of the pelican mascot. Image courtesy 2017 World Rowing Championships

Commissioner Hines drew laughter when — with a straight face — he suggested that Commissioners Robinson and Mason might be happy to volunteer to be the mascot, since they will have more free time after they leave the board in late November.

Scerba cautioned that whoever takes on the role will have to be at least 5 feet 8 inches tall to fit in the costume.

“They wear heels,” Hines replied of Mason and Robinson.

Robinson suggested Hines also could volunteer, as he already meets the height requirement “without heels.”