Manatee-Sarasota rowing-mall project moving toward new deadlines, fundraising challenges

Complex rowing-mall project moving toward new deadlines, fundraising challenges

jajones1@bradenton.comMarch 2, 2013 

It's a massive, complex, sprawling project, dependent on money, private-public partnerships and intricate planning. It's unlike anything else ever attempted in the Bradenton-Sarasota area.

If all goes as planned, it will bring the international spotlight to the region.

It is, of course, the project to build the 1.5 million-square-foot University Town Center mall, as well as a 600-acre world-class rowing center, and extend Cattlemen Road to the southwest corner of Interstate 75 and University Parkway -- all at roughly the same time and place.

Each piece of the puzzle is dependent on the other. University Town Center, with its 220,000 square feet of retail space and 500 hotel rooms -- being constructed by Benderson Development Company, and its partner, Taubman Centers -- is crucial in the quest to land the 2017 world rowing championships.

Those shopping and dining amenities and hotel rooms will be a major factor in September when representatives of 130 countries vote in Chungju, South Korea -- site of this year's world championships -- to award the 2017 competition.

If Manatee-Sarasota makes a successful bid, it will be only the second time the United States has hosted the championships. The only other U.S. host was Indianapolis in 1994.

Bradenton businessman Bill Robinson, owner of Fit2Run, and Sarasota attorney Ron Shapo, both board members of the nonprofit Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Association, are optimistic that Manatee-Sarasota can raise the additional $20 million from private sources needed to complete the rowing facility. And they believe the community can make a convincing case on why the rowing championships should

come here.

"It's like getting a Super Bowl. You have to do certain things, and have the right amenities for these international events," Robinson said. "It is important that they believe that this venue will happen here in Bradenton and Sarasota."

And Nathan Benderson Park, with its 400-acre lake, is easy to reach, being close to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport and right on Interstate 75 and University Parkway.

"It gives us a huge advantage over the competition," Robinson said.

In fact, he notes, the hard work has already been done with the creation of the venue.

Infrastructure improvements to Nathan Benderson Park will be substantially completed in September.

Those improvements, costing an estimated $20 million of tourism tax dollars provided by Sarasota County, include extending Cattlemen Road; dredging and lengthening the lake from 1,800 meters to 2,200 meters; and constructing the 30-acre Regatta Island, which will be race central.

Manatee and Sarasota counties have committed more than $1 million each to land the world rowing championships.

"It's been going incredibly well," said Paul Blackketter, chief operating officer of the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Association, which was established to manage the aquatic center, raise funds and fill the programming schedule at the park.

To start and complete the "vertical" improvements to the park, the nonprofit association needs to raise an additional $20 million from private sources.

Those improvements would include a boathouse, starting tower, finishing tower, timing huts and covered grandstands for spectators.

That's not to say that it will cost $20 million in additional improvements to host the world championships, said Blackketter, who is project manager for the rowing facility and draws his salary from Benderson Development.

It would take $5 million to host the championships, using temporary structures, Blackketter said.

"But we are highly motivated to complete the park and make it self-sustaining," he said. "We are very optimistic that we will be able to raise the money."

Funds would be raised from local, regional and national sources, he said.

Potential sources of funding include naming rights, special events and donations, officials say.

Construction is ahead of schedule on the rowing facility. Regatta Island is scheduled to be completed in September from material dredged to lengthen the lake. The island will be allowed to settle before "vertical construction" begins in April 2014.

That's when the boat house, covered grandstands and other racing amenities would be added.

An April 2015 completion date has been set for the rowing facility, opening about seven months after Benderson Development Co.'s massive University Town Center is completed, including a first hotel.

Nathan Benderson Park is also being developed as a county park, something that project leaders see as essential to the viability of the project.

In addition to the elite rowing athletes it will attract, it will also be a destination for family picnics, joggers, cyclists, triathletes, canoers and kayakers. It is also designed for corporate training and wellness outreach.

Organizers also see the 600-acre park as a place for veterans and first responders suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or recuperating from physical injuries or amputations to come for therapy through rowing, sometimes called adaptive sports or pararowing.

"We'll be tapping into Veterans Affairs, MacDill Air Force Base, and Bay Pines," Blackketter said.

Military veterans recovering from the trauma of war, and first responders recovering from what they have seen at crash scenes or homicides will be able to work through their problems together.

"The community is the ultimate cause we serve," Shapo said, citing economic stimulation and improvements to the quality of life.

Once the boathouse is built, Nathan Benderson Park can become a true center for local high school rowing teams, other rowers and the public in general.

"Everyone can come down and learn to row, kayak and canoe," Blackketter said. "The focus on the world championship is great. We'll have one of the best facilities in the Western Hemisphere.

"But this is much, much more than the world rowing championships," he added. "This is a community park."

The partnership

Benderson Development paid Sarasota County $1 million in 2009 to rename the park after Nathan Benderson, patriarch of the company.

For the past five years, Benderson has hosted rowing regattas at the lake, a former excavation site used to dredge material to build I-75.

Benderson has also been winning buy-in from Manatee and Sarasota counties. Sarasota committed $20 million in tourism taxes to the infrastructure improvements needed for a rowing center.

With the prospect of millions of dollars of revenue flowing into the area annually from rowing events at Nathan Benderson Park, Manatee County invested $1.2 million in building a new rowing training facility at Fort Hamer Park, which opened in December 2010.

Some of the top U.S. collegiate rowing teams, including Harvard, immediately began using the facility and staying in Manatee County hotels and buying meals in local restaurants.

The state of Florida put up $5 million toward completion of the project in 2012, swayed by the potential economic impact of the project.

Blackketter has spearheaded Benderson's efforts to build partnerships and bring the world championships to Manatee-Sarasota.

He recently returned from Copenhagen, Denmark, which hosted the Extraordinary Congress of the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d'Aviron (FISA), or the International Federation of Rowing Associations, the governing body of the sport of rowing.

"We went to solicit votes. Just to do the politicking," Blackketter said.

It was only the latest stop on a world tour that has taken him to Slovenia, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, Switzerland, and elsewhere to learn, and to spread word of the new facility being built in Manatee-Sarasota.

"We want to learn from other people's mistakes so those mistakes don't come here," he said.

Tourist development councils in Manatee and Sarasota have also put up about $1.1 million each to try to help land the rowing championships.

Based on the 2012 world championships held in Bled, Slovenia, Manatee-Sarasota officials project there would be 42,000 attendees, with $12.9 million in direct spending by athletes, coaches and officials, and total economic impact to the area of $24.6 million.

Representatives from Manatee and Sarasota attended the FISA Congress meeting in Copenhagen in February, along with Blackketter.

In the next few months, they plan to attend World Cup events in Sydney, Australia, and Eton, United Kingdom, and launch advertising to brand the aquatic center.

FISA officials plan to visit Nathan Benderson Park in April, and the final bid submission for the world championships is set for May.

It's all part of the effort to broaden the attraction of sports tourism to the area, bringing an influx of business, visitors and dollars that will sustain the local economy and build jobs year round, said Elliott Falcione, executive direction of the Manatee Convention and Business Center.

Lakewood Ranch resident Bob Delaney, who worked as an NBA referee for 25 years, and who serves as a board member of Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Association, said he was drawn to the project because of the dramatic vision behind it and the potential community benefit.

"It serves all. There will be opportunity for young folks and older folks. I just thought the vision was fantastic," Delaney said.

As for the need to raise $20 million from private sources, Delaney says that is a challenge, but it's not insurmountable.

"People are drawn to a winner," he said. "It draws people to it. It's unique."

And the potential of a world rowing champion puts Manatee and Sarasota on the map in a way that it hasn't been before.

.James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021 or tweet @jajones1

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