With four major rowing or paddling events on the horizon, Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy CEO and President Stephen Rodriguez said he is excited 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 May 10, it was anything but business as usual for the park.

Commissioners voted 5-0 to commit $20 million in tourist tax money toward a new boathouse and indoor sports event center. The event center would be 100,000 square feet and would be the second floor of the boathouse.

Nicole Rissler, the director of parks, recreation and natural resources for Sarasota County, made a presentation to county commissioners in which the county’s staff recommended to dedicate the funding from the third additional 1 cent levy of tourist development tax to the boathouse and indoor sports complex.

Rissler said that “in round numbers” she estimated the project would cost $40 million. She estimated the boathouse on its own would have been approximately a $10 million project.

She said that other than the $20 million committed by Sarasota County, the other funds would need to be raised privately.

Nathan Benderson Park Board Chair Michael Taaffe said in March his nonprofit had raised about $7 million toward the boathouse.

Rissler said donations and naming rights would be part of the fundraising effort.

It was a reaction to the commissioners approving the 2022 Sarasota County Strategic Plan on Jan. 11. That plan recognized the importance of the boathouse and indoor sports complex.

Rissler said Sarasota County’s staff would develop a new Capital Improvement Project and would work with Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy on conceptual plans, a budget and an analysis on operations and maintenance.

She said those plans and concepts would be presented to the commission late this year.

“This is the beginning of a lot of work to determine what will go into this building,” Rissler said. “All the programming is yet to come.”

Although Commissioner Nancy Detert voted in favor of the monetary commitment, she said the commission session was like talking about how much you love baseball “when the thing before us is a baseball stadium.”

But the rest of the commissioners all showed enthusiasm for the idea.

“This is an absolutely wonderful thing,” Commissioner Alan Maio. “This is a long time coming.”

Commissioner Mike Moran told his fellow commissioners to remember when the park was “an empty hole in the ground … a borrow pit.”

“This is a no brainer to me. This opens the door to some extraordinary possibilities,” he said.

He said he sees the time when the indoor sports event center would host a national tournament and the families visiting would visit the Mote Science Education Aquarium, play at PopStroke and spend a day at Siesta Key.

Besides visitors, Moran said a sports events center would fill a gap in the community in the ability to host national events.

The push toward an indoor sports event center comes at a time when Nathan Benderson Park continues to develop its image as a community park with many assets.

It had developed its reputation as the top rowing facility in North America and enhanced 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 events schedule is picking up.

The International Dragon Boat Federation Club Crew World Championships July 18-24 is expected to have competitors from 12 nations and more than 3,500 participants. The park in the past month has signed agreements to host 13 national and international rowing, canoe and dragon boat events.

The Sarasota County staff recommended the tax commitment after a feasibility study on the indoor sports facility was completed by Johnson Consulting of Chicago.

That study estimated an initial economic impact of $20 million a year connected with the new facility.

Rodriguez emphasized the proposed indoor sports complex was “the county’s project.”

In 2018, Suncoast Aquatics Nature Center Associates, now the conservancy, said it had two plans for either 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 for hosting weddings, community events and park programming. Estimates for the two-story facility were $10 million at the time.

Rodriguez agreed with Rissler that citizens should be patient as they wait for details about the project. He said the project is in its infancy and at this point is a developing concept. He said the county’s action May 10 is one step in the process, and not a business plan.

He said the feasibility study was not about construction.

The study told the county that it had a need for indoor competition space for basketball, volleyball, pickleball, cheer competitions, dance competitions, martial arts and more.

Rodriguez said obviously the pursuit of a new boathouse/indoor sports event center would be the most exciting news coming out of the 2022 calendar year, but he noted that right behind it in the top three would be the International Dragon Boat Federation Club Crew World Championships and the USRowing Masters National Championships Aug. 11-14l.

Rodriguez also is excited about the park’s training programs filling up once again, which means increasing revenue for the park.

He noted the need for the boathouse is more about programming than it is about hosting rowing or paddling events. He said the park already can host those events.

Programming numbers over the past five years at the park are up 1,800% to more than 7,000 participants.

The park received $10,750 in donations during the Giving Challenge and that money will support programming to create opportunities for children who can’t afford the fees.

“We will serve the underserved,” Rodriguez said.

During the 2020-21 Fiscal Year, the park received $1.189 million in funding from the county. Rodriguez said the conservancy and the county are negotiating to keep the funding the same over the next two fiscal years.


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