If Manatee-Sarasota win World Rowing Championship bid, the work begins

Herald Staff WritersAugust 25, 2013 

SARASOTA -- Rowing supporters here have operated for years under the "Field of Dreams" philosophy: "If you build it, they will come."

Now, as local officials are putting the finishing touches on Nathan Benderson Park's official rowing competition course, area leaders are gathering in South Korea to find out Sept. 2 whether Sarasota will be awarded the 2017 World Rowing Championships.

If the Sarasota-Manatee area is chosen, it will set off a flurry of activity because it takes more than building a rowing course to welcome the world.

"We've planned this facility to always be able to host a World Rowing Championship, so it won't be a surprise," said Nicole Rissler, director of sports for Visit

Sarasota County. "But when they make the announcement, it will certainly be go-time for us to finish the final phases and get ready."

Athletes will need special meals, hotels need to plan to modify their operations and fans need an easy way to get to the beach. All of that planning is already in motion, and if the International Rowing Federation awards the region the games, there will be a shotgun start to finish every small detail that goes into producing the event.

Today marks the first day of the 2013 World Rowing Championships, as the first wave of Sarasota and Manatee officials arrive in Chungju, South Korea, to see what it takes to put on this world event. While organizers will get a first-hand look of what it takes to put on a championship, much of the groundwork has been laid.

Honing hospitality

When the time comes for rowers, their families and spectators from around the world to descend on Nathan Benderson Park, Visit Sarasota County plans to pull out all the stops to impress their guests.

"We expect to roll out the red carpet," Rissler said.

The games cannot be successful without the help of students and staff at the University of South Florida, Sarasota-Manatee. Cihan Cobanoglu, professor and dean of the College of Hospitality & Technology Leadership, estimates 500 students who participated in his college will help out in 2017.

Cobanoglu believes the region is in good shape now for three most important factors: lodging, food and transportation.

Both counties have plenty of hotel rooms when taking into account planned hotels and new construction that would be completed for 2017, he said. But there is a shortage of full-service hotels that provide three meals a day.

Cobanoglu has a way to solve both the food problem and the hotel issue: provide pre-planned catering menus and set up those services in the limited hotels to turn them into temporary full-service hotels that cater particularly to athletes and their families.

"We said this is not a difficult problem," Cobanoglu said. "Our hospitality school has experts in nutrition and food management and food planning. We will be happy to help create some set menus."

The menus will include food for local and international palates, as well as athletes, and will include calorie counts so the rowers can keep tabs on their competition diets.

"I sincerely believe this can happen because this is how all Olympics are done, and how big sports and entertainment events are handled," Cobanoglu said. "You create temporary kitchens and catering establishments to be able to feed people in large quantities."

The larger events within the championship is a grand dinner for participating nations, Rissler said, as well as opening and closing ceremonies and parties for the FISA jury, media and other groups.

Cobanoglu expects USF to have a strong presence in helping to execute the event before, during and after, to make sure everything runs smoothly. Some of that work includes a partnership with Benderson Development Co., he said, where students are placed directly in Benderson-owned hotels and other facilities to hone their hospitality skills.

The Masters Nationals offered a glimpse of impressive hospitality, said Paul Blackketter, president of Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates, the organization in charge of organized rowing in Sarasota-Manatee.

"We're getting a lot of comments that the hospitality that our area provided to the rowers went beyond their expectations," he said. "Everybody knew that they were in town and wanted them to have an incredible experience."

Over time, a research firm will visit Benderson Park to survey guests there to collect data that can be used to help plan for 2017, said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"Our goal is to have a research firm survey people at Nathan Benderson Park when they come in to really get a gauge for what their impression is, what they like to do, how we can do things better," Falcione said.

Figuring out transportation

Transportation to the park at 2500 N. Honore Ave. along University Parkway needs to be addressed and improved, Cobanoglu said. But he is confident both county services -- Manatee County Area Transit and Sarasota County Area Transit -- can collaborate to provide special routes and meet the needs of visitors from around the globe.

SCAT has been planning a permanent route that will help Sarasota visitors as part of its plan to add routes for students to get to area colleges, and future employees and shoppers at the Mall at University Town Center set to open next year, said Glama Carter, transit general manager for SCAT.

The two-bus route will start on U.S. 41, and will serve Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport and areas along University Parkway to University Town Center and Benderson Park.

SCAT will present the proposed route, which is expected to cost between $600,000 and $700,000 per year, to the Sarasota County Commission for approval Tuesday, Carter said. She is confident the board will OK the proposal.

"The board recognizes the importance of this championship and the need of having a direct route between the airport and University Town Center facilities," she said. "When families of athletes come to town, they will look forward to having transportation and going to hotels and restaurants freely without having to rent a car."

SCAT is also in the midst of a partnership with Benderson Development to design a transfer station that will be located at the northeast corner of North Cattlemen and DeSoto roads.

Carter anticipates that MCAT will meet SCAT at that location to provide services east and west.

Tourism officials also want to provide unique first impressions and experiences for the event, Falcione said, and that might be in the form of special beach shuttles.

"We want to come up with a mechanism to offer a way that we can get athletes and their families to our beautiful beaches while they're in the destination," Falcione said.

One of those options could be a shuttle service to Siesta Key and Coquina Beach, he added.

"We want to do things that are unique compared to the norm for events like this," he said.

Dress rehearsals

The small four-day regatta, U.S. Rowing's Masters National Championships, brought in about 1,000 rowers plus 500 spectators and event staff to eat, shop, sleep and play in the two-county region this month. It served as more of an amuse-bouche to the feast of rowing competitions to come.

"The first will be the 2014 Dragon Boat Festival, and that will be the first major international event that we'll have here with over 2,500 paddlers from around the world and an upwards of 3,500 total people," Rissler said. The event also provides a dry run for a to-be-determined 2016 international rowing event.

"That will be designated in the coming months by FISA once the bid is awarded," Rissler said.

Sarasota's chief competitor for the 2017 games was Plovdiv, Bulgaria, but the FISA Council recommended that city be awarded the 2018 World Rowing Championships and 2015 Under-23 Championships.

The 2017 World Championships will be spread over 15 to 17 days, likely during peak tourist season around March, creating a better opportunity to draw more spectators with a $25 million economic impact.

Tourism officials from Sarasota County expect that the event will draw more than 40,000 people, or about as much as a sold-out Tampa Bay Rays game at Tropicana Field.

"We're really trying to draw additional spectators from around the world, but we're really also pulling domestically," Rissler said. "There's nothing we want more than the international rowers to see how excited we are to have the competition back."

The Masters Nationals, with an early estimated $800,000 to $1 million impact, served as a good launch to create momentum for the larger regattas.

"All the indicators are pointing in our direction -- especially coming off the cuff of a very successful Masters event," Blackketter said. "Two FISA members were there and basically walked away saying 'Great job.'"

Even with that, U.S. Rowing said this Masters National event was smaller than others; some rowers were already on their way to the World Rowing Championship in South Korea during the Sarasota event.

"Overall, we were very pleased with the event. In terms of entries, it was a smaller Masters National than we've had in recent years, due to conflicts with Canadian Henley and World Masters in Italy," said Allison Frederick, spokeswoman for U.S. Rowing. "But we were delighted to see that some of the larger clubs in the Northeast made the trip down to Sarasota. It was a good representation of masters rowing in the U.S."

Blackketter cites three things that organizers did exceptionally well during the recent regatta: The wave attenuator that was recently installed kept the water calm; the event's Internet broadcasting drew worldwide viewers; and the hospitality that rowers received was remarkable.

He also hopes to adopt wakeless launches for vessels such as catamaran boats, which referees and officials would use instead of the jon boats.

"Jon boats are small, cumbersome, simply uncomfortable and not easy to operate," Blacketter said. "And they also put on a pretty good wake."

On the down side, Blackketter was unhappy with so many rain delays to construction at Benderson Park. SANCA, Blackketter's rowing association, has about two years to finish the remaining construction, and still has to raise another $15 million for the venue.

So far, the park has received a sizable chunk of tourism tax dollars from state and local agencies to help complete the park. The state put $5 million in this year's budget to fund continued construction, and during a recent visit Gov. Rick Scott seemed open to providing more funds. The state also previously committed a $5 million grant to the park for the wave attenuation system.

"It's all about the budget. We're moving towards the wakeless launches. It's just a matter of time," Blackketter said.

The layout of festivities will change over time as well. Boaters and vendors shuffled from shore to shore at Benderson Park while the Regatta Island was constructed last year.

The rows of vendors and viewing areas will continue to shift as Regatta Island will turn into a miniature city with covered grandstands on the western edge of the island along with the tower for rowing officials. Concept plans have shown temporary island layouts as it undergoes a transformation to the permanent buildings to be constructed for 2016 and 2017.

A boat house will be built on the southern edge, providing a more organized area for rowers to store equipment and prepare to launch.

That is all contingent upon SANCA's ability to raise the needed funds, but there is always a possibility of more public money or grants. Failing another state budget contribution, SANCA is left to privately raise the remaining $15 million-plus to complete construction.

Toasting teamwork

Trying to pull off the championships means that two visitor bureaus, two county commissions, two transit agencies, state legislators, a governor, a university, a major developer, local, national and international rowing federations plus countless volunteers and businesses all had to cooperate.

Cobanoglu, a native of Turkey, hasn't seen that much cooperation in his world travels.

"I have been with a lot of organizations, but I've never seen this wonderful collaboration between two counties," Cobanoglu said.

Maybe a small percentage of the visitors and athletes will consider moving to the Sarasota-Manatee area, but at the least, Cobanoglu is certain they'll come back again to say hello.

"I'm very confident that 10 to 20 percent of people who come to Sarasota for rowing will come back to this area for years to come," Cobanoglu said.

Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Sabrina Rocco, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow Schelle on Twitter @ImYourChuck and Rocco @SabrinaRocco.

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