Rowing association wants $500K in Manatee County tax funds

chawes@bradenton.comOctober 18, 2011 

MANATEE -- Manatee County will be asked to pledge almost $500,000 over the next three years to a new nonprofit group charged with guiding Nathan Benderson Park’s pursuit of world-class rowing status.

The new group, called the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Association, would also guide the park in becoming self-sufficient through income-generating amenities.

“We want to turn this into a community asset that works for everyone,” says Rick Piccolo, who has volunteered his efforts to form the nonprofit corporation. “We have to have a coordinated entity to do that.”

Manatee County’s contribution would come from the county’s tourism tax dollars and would complement Sarasota County’s $600,000 commitment to the new group. Manatee’s tourist development council likely will review the funding request in mid-November.

During its first three years, the association would focus on raising money for boathouses, a finishing tower, a professional training facility, and other key amenities that would qualify Nathan Benderson Park to host international rowing regattas. The improvements may position the park to host rowing world championships in 2017, an event that could draw 70,000 to 100,000 more people to the Manatee/Sarasota area.

They would also equip Nathan Benderson Park with on-site structures, including a commercial boathouse and professional training facility, that could be rented out to corporations and competitive teams.

“The boathouse and other leasable amenities will ensure the venue pays for itself and its own operation and maintenance,” said Paul Blackketter, executive director of planning for Benderson Development, which also is donating at least $150,000 to the nonprofit group.

Piccolo said he became passionate about the rowing complex’s potential during his recently finished stint as president of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce. He said the rowing complex’s potential to generate tourism dollars for the area is also a great advantage to the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, of which Piccolo is executive director.

“This has the potential to be the biggest economic engine in the area, from a tourism standpoint, in the last 20 years,” Piccolo said. “It could generate more than 1,500 jobs and up to $150 million annually.”

The new association also would seek to hire an initial staff of two to four people that would coordinate scheduling at Nathan Benderson Park, Fort Hamer and a third rowing location in Osprey. Eventually, the association would hire a full staff in charge of maintenance, accounting and other internal tasks needed to operate the rowing conglomerate.

Blackketter also is acting as an informal adviser to a group that is forming to coordinate regattas and other rowing events along the Bradenton riverfront.

Christine Hawes, Herald business writer, can be reached at (941) 745-7081.

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