With four major rowing or paddling events on the horizon, Stephen Rodriguez, CEO and President of the Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy, said he is excited that business is returning to normal at the park in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But as the Sarasota County Commission went into session on May 10, it was anything but business as usual for the park.
The commissioners voted 5-0 to give $20 million in tourist tax money toward a new boathouse and indoor sports event center. The event center will be 100,000 square feet and the boathouse will have a second floor.
Nicole Risler, director of parks, recreation and natural resources for Sarasota County, made a presentation to county commissioners in which county employees recommended devoting funds to boathouses and indoor sports complexes from a third additional 1 percent levy of the tourism development tax. ,
Riesler said that “in round numbers” he estimated the project would cost $40 million. She estimated that the boathouse itself would have been a project worth about $10 million.
She said that in addition to the $20 million that Sarasota County made, other funds would need to be raised privately.
Nathan Benderson Park Board Chairman Michael Taff said in March that his nonprofit had raised nearly $7 million toward the Boathouse.
Riesler said donations and naming rights will be part of the fundraising effort.
This was a response to the commissioners approving the 2022 Sarasota County Strategic Plan on January 11. That plan recognized the importance of the boathouse and indoor sports complex.
Riesler said employees in Sarasota County will develop a new capital improvement project and work with the Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy on conceptual plans, budget, and an analysis on operations and maintenance.
Those plans and concepts would be presented to the commission later this year, he said.
“It’s just the beginning of a lot of work to determine what will happen in this building,” Risler said. “All the programming is yet to come.”
Although Commissioner Nancy Dettert voted in favor of the monetary commitment, she said the commission session was like talking about how much you love baseball “when the thing in front of us is the baseball stadium.”
But all the other commissioners showed enthusiasm for the idea.
“It’s an absolutely wonderful thing,” Commissioner Alan Mao said. “It’s been a long time coming.”
Commissioner Mike Moran called on his fellow commissioners to remember that when the park was “an empty hole in the ground … a lending pit.”
“It is a no brainer for me. It opens the door to some extraordinary possibilities,” he said.
He said he looks forward to the time the indoor sports event center will host a national tournament and that visiting families will visit the Motte Science Education Aquarium, play popstrokes and spend a day at Siesta Key.
In addition to visitors, Moran said a sporting event center would fill a gap in the community in its ability to host national events.
The push towards an indoor sports event center comes at a time when Nathan Benderson Park continues to develop its image as a community park with multiple properties.
It had developed its reputation as the top rowing facility in North America and extended that reputation by hosting the 2017 World Rowing Championships.
The plans for a new boathouse and event center also come at a time, as Rodriguez said, when the park’s event schedule is expanding.
Competitors from 12 countries and over 3,500 participants are expected at the International Dragon Boat Federation Club Crew World Championships July 18-24. The park has signed agreements to host 13 national and international rowing, canoe and dragon boat events in the past month.
Sarasota County employees recommended a tax commitment after Chicago’s Johnson Consulting completed a feasibility study on the indoor sports facility.
That study estimated that there would be an initial economic impact of $20 million annually associated with the new facility.
Rodriguez insisted the proposed indoor sports complex be a “project of the county”.
In 2018, Suncoast Aquatics Nature Center Associates, now the Conservancy, said it had two plans for a one-level boathouse that would include boat storage, locker rooms and a fitness facility; and a two-level plan for a banquet hall on the second floor to host weddings, community events and park programming. The two-story facility was estimated at $10 million at the time.
Rodriguez agreed with Riesler that citizens should be patient as they await details of the project. He said that the project is in its infancy and a developing concept at the moment. He said the county’s action is a step in the May 10 process, not a business plan.
He said the feasibility study was not about construction.
The study told the county that it needed indoor competition space for basketball, volleyball, pickleball, cheer competitions, dance competitions, martial arts, and more.
Rodriguez said that apparently the most exciting news to come out of the 2022 calendar year will be the discovery of a new boathouse/indoor sports event center, but added that the top three will have the International Dragon Boat Federation Club Crew World Championships right behind it. and USRowing Masters National Championships Aug 11-14l.
Rodriguez is also excited to ramp up the park’s training programs once again, which means increasing revenue for the park.
He notes that the boathouse need is more about programming than hosting rowing or paddling events. He said the park may already be hosting those events.
Programming numbers at the park are up 1,800% for over 7,000 participants over the past five years.
The park received $10,750 in donations during the Giving Challenge, and that money will support programming to create opportunities for children who cannot afford the fees.
“We will serve the unqualified,” Rodriguez said.
During the 2020-21 fiscal year, the park received $1.189 million in funding from the county. Rodriguez said the conservancy and county are in talks to keep the funding equal over the next two fiscal years.
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