Let the rowing begin: First competitive team puts oars in Manatee River

skennedy@bradenton.comDecember 31, 2010 

EAST MANATEE -- Competitive rowers appeared Thursday for the first time on the Manatee River as workmen rushed to finish a boathouse and restrooms ashore at the county’s Fort Hamer Park.

A team from Boston’s Northeastern University arrived Wednesday, and by 7 a.m. Thursday, was already afloat on the smooth river. Temperatures in the 60s, a gauzy, overcast sky, and lush foliage along the water’s edge seemed to hit the team’s sweet spot.

“This is happening, this is not going to be a well-kept secret for very long,” said Coach John Pojednic, gazing out onto the peaceful river where the team’s craft rested along a new floating dock.

“This is a great rowing venue,” the coach added.

Pojednic said what makes the area so attractive is its “good water” -- calm and smooth -- and the community’s involvement and interest.

He had been impressed that all the logistics had been so carefully worked out, and was amazed at the warm welcome from the area that he has already experienced.

“That’s why we’re here, that’s why we’ll come back,” he said.

The 22-man team will be training here and at Sarasota’s Nathan Benderson Park until Jan. 8, he said, and is staying at the Hampton Inn Ellenton/Bradenton, 5810 20th Court E.

It is among six teams slated to arrive from the north in coming weeks to train at Fort Hamer Park, south of Parrish; and two affiliated Sarasota County venues, Benderson Park, near the intersection of Interstate 75 and University Parkway; and Blackburn Point Park, in Osprey.

The rowers’ arrival represents the culmination of efforts by Manatee and Sarasota counties and their partner, the Benderson Development Co. The partnership hopes to develop world-class competitive rowing facilities across both counties that could eventually attract thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, to racing events.

Maybe that’s why a celebratory note crept into the voice of David Gustafson, Manatee County’s project manager, as he stood on the new dock looking out at rowers coming in. “We’re very, very ecstatic,” he said.

Rowers were appearing at the other two venues, too. A team from Grand Valley State University, in Allendale, Mich., arrived earlier this week, and spent the first part of its stay practicing at the Osprey facility, overlooking Sarasota Bay. Sunday at 2 p.m., it is slated to row here in Manatee County at Fort Hamer Park.

“We have a fantastic week planned with a lot of variety, long rows, competitive sessions and some rays at the beach,” Grand Valley Coach John Bancheri, wrote in an e-mail.

At Osprey, the team had even carried its boats over the dunes to row in the Gulf of Mexico, the coach said.

“These guys are having the full Florida experience,” said Joe Dobson, a coach for the Sarasota County Rowing Club, which is hosting the Grand Valley State team.

While the rowers are here, they stay at local hotels, eat at local restaurants and take advantage of other local amenities.“We do feel the effect is going to be wonderful for our property, and also wonderful, economically, for everyone else in the area,” said Mai Perez, area director of sales for Buffalo Lodging, the hotel division of the Benderson company, operator of the Hampton Inn Ellenton/Bradenton.

She estimated rowing teams have booked more than 2,000 room nights in the next couple of months at the hotel.

However, she wasn’t the only one appreciating a ripple effect from the rowing teams’ arrival.

A couple of bicyclists stood looking at the $825,000 worth of rowing-related improvements at Fort Hamer Park, particularly the fully-equipped restrooms.

“Delighted to see an upgrade in the plumbing facilities,” said Karl Hamlin, a retired snowbird who bikes daily to the park and had been using its previous bathroom -- a Porta Potty.

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