Manatee-Sarasota awarded World Rowing Championship

Staff writersSeptember 1, 2013 

From left to right: Paul Blackketter, President SANCA; Ed Hunzeker, Manatee County administrator; Don Langford, US Rowing board president; Dave Gustafson, Executive Director Bradenton downtown development authority; Virginia Haley President, Visit Sarasota County; Joe Barbetta, Sarasota County Commission; Randy Benderson, President of Benderson Development; Dan Schlandt, Assistant County Administrator, Manatee County; Randall Reid, Sarasota County Administrator; Larry Bustle, Manatee County Commissioner; Elliott Falcione Bradenton Area CVB /PHOTO BY IGOR MEIJER/FISA

IGOR MEIJER

CHUNGJU, SOUTH KOREA -- In an unanimous decision Sunday night the FISA board awarded Manatee-Sarasota counties the World Rowing Championship in 2017.

Emotions were running high among the local contingent, who applauded the leaders who have been working to bring the championship here for more than three years when there were at one time nine cities contending.

Paul Blackketter, who led the effort, said a community partnership made everything come together.

"It's such an honor, we're all so touched," said Randy Benderson, president of Benderson Development. "The team worked together over endless hours. Paul has done an amazing job. To go from a total of nine contenders three years ago: we're sort of pinching ourselves. We can't believe it. It's very emotional."

Winning the bid means more than a high profile on a world stage. It also means pumping millions of tourism dollars into the local economy and more jobs for area workers as the region prepares for as many as 100,000 visitors to descend in 2017.

After waiting nervously for the vote, area leaders were elated to get a unanimous decision, despite concerns raised about hurricane season. It is the first time in more than 20 years the United States will play host to the World Rowing Championship."We have so much to be proud of today," said Manatee County Commission Chairman Larry Bustle, who was in Korea for the announcement. "This news would not have been possible without the incredible commitment and vision of the tourist development councils and county commissions from both Manatee and Sarasota counties and without the extraordinary focus and dedication of staff."

With this week's announcement comes an immediate spotlight on the area.

"Over the next four years, the Sarasota-Bradenton area will have the rare opportunity to showcase globally how beautiful our destination is to visit," said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It is truly great to see how two communities can jointly set a goal and accomplish that goal by working in a diligent and unselfish manner. We believe that this type of event will no doubt generate future business and real estate opportunities in our community that is vital to our future economy; that's what makes this accomplished objective so special."

Officials from Manatee, Sarasota and the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates will hold a press conference Wednesday at Nathan Benderson Park to celebrate and discuss the championship.

Blackketter told Sarasota County officials in an e-mail the championship likely will take place the last week of September in 2017.

"This is just a fantastic accomplishment to be able to host the championship for the first time since 1994," said Glenn Merry, chief executive officer of USRowing Association, which oversees the sport of rowing in the United States.

"It puts Sarasota-Bradenton on the map of serious Olympic-level sports, not just for rowing, but for triathlon, marathon swimming and canoe-kayak," he said. "I think it will continue to bolster the community's economy, and bring more people to Sarasota-Bradenton for competition and training camps."

The 2017 World Rowing Championship is projected to attract at least 42,000 athletes, coaches and fans to the county and be broadcast worldwide to 130 million viewers, according to Sarasota County officials. Many of those guests will be staying at Manatee County hotels, as the event is expected to generate 40,000 room nights.

Officials from the world championship in South Korea said over the eight-day championship this year, there was "a record 157,000 spectators."

"SANCA and county staff from Manatee and Sarasota counties will continue to work diligently to make 2017 not only an international rowing event, but an international success story," said Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker. "This effort has become a true model of public-private partnership and regional collaboration. It's remarkable to see what we can accomplish when everyone works toward the same end."

More than 1,500 Olympic-caliber athletes from more than 70 countries are expected to compete. The international competition, a precursor to the Olympic Games, will be broadcast to a worldwide television audience of 130 million people.

"It's an absolute fantastic opportunity for Sarasota and Manatee County to bring the world to our region and show the world what our communities have to offer," said Bob Whitford, manager of Nathan Benderson Park.

Whitford, a rower and former coach, said he will focus on the event venue and supporting the operational needs of the rowing federation.

"I'm extraordinarily excited about what Nathan Benderson Park has done for our community, and the people of our county," he said. "It will be a tremendous crown jewel."

Attendees at the official announcement Sept. 2 in Seoul, South Korea, included officials from Sarasota County, Manatee County, Visit Sarasota County, Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates and the U.S. Rowing Association. The commitment by Sarasota and Manatee counties, SANCA and the support of USRowing convinced FISA's world congress that returning to the United States for the World Championship was the correct vote.

Area officials were able to assuage fears about hurricanes in order to win the championship.

"We provided all the data to FISA demonstrating that in later September our rain drops off, temperatures are cooler, less hurricanes and less humidity. Most likely FISA may settle on the last week of September, but we will still pushed October," Blackketter wrote to commissioners. "The bottom line, FISA has all the facts regarding our weather and they will make a very intelligence decision on this. We will keep everyone posted; we are sending FISA weekly weather updates from now to end of October down to the hour so an educated decision is made."

More than $40 million in public and private-sector funds have been committed to help transform a former borrow pit into Nathan Benderson Park, the premier rowing venue in North America, capable of staging an Olympic-caliber event.

Sarasota County's $19.5 million investment comes from a tourist development tax paid by visitors to the area. Those funds have paid for the first two phases of the park's transformation.

Phase III of the project, construction of a state-of-the-art boathouse, timing towers, grandstands and other amenities, will be funded by SANCA and corporate support.

"Everyone has faith in us, they believe in us and we're going to do an amazing job," Benderson said.

In addition to the commitment of state and local elected officials and the community, FISA officials cited the park's proximity to Interstate 75, Sarasota/Bradenton International Airport, calm waters, and year-round good weather as reasons for choosing Nathan Benderson Park.

The United States has more than a quarter of a million rowers competing domestically and internationally.

Leading up to 2017, several races will serve as benchmarks to see if the region is ready to row.

"The first will be the 2014 Dragon Boat Festival, and that will be the first major international event that we'll have here with more than 2,500 paddlers from around the world and upwards of 3,500 total people," Visit Sarasota County's Director of Sports Nicole Rissler told the Herald. The event also provides a dry run for a to-be-determined 2016 international rowing event.

From pit to park

The vision of a park at an old borrow pit at 2500 Honore Ave., used for gathering rock for road pavement at one time, started when Sarasota County purchased the park for $2.2 million from APAC-Florida, Inc. The park, called North Metro Park, was later renamed Cooper Creek Park for the creek that filled the pit turning it into a 300-acre lake.

Benderson Development Co. submitted plans for the University Town Center next the to park in 2005, setting up the vision for the Mall at University Town Center with housing, office space, additional retail and hotels all tied into the park. The initial proposal was approved in 2007 and has undergone many changes and stops and starts. As part of the proposal, Benderson submitted a master plan for Cooper Creek Park that led to upgrades to the glorified fishing hole filled with alligators. The county and development company managed to stage its first two regattas in 2009 as Sarasota County committed $250,000 to help bring the competitions to the park.

Benderson Development, under the direction of Blackketter and founder Nathan Benderson, who passed away in 2012, continued to work with Sarasota County officials and world rowing experts to transform Cooper Creek Park into an international rowing course. The county and Benderson also entered in a shared use agreement for the northern 101 acres to develop the rowing course.

Blackketter, a Manatee County native and resident, helped form Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Association in 2010 to help oversee the day-to-day rowing operation and the venue's development.

That same year, Benderson Development paid $1 million for naming rights to the venue, and the park was renamed Nathan Benderson Park in honor of the donation. The late Benderson could often be seen riding his bike through the park and enjoyed the atmosphere and understood what the rowing venue would mean to his University Town Center.

So far, Sarasota County has committed $19.5 million in bed taxes, paid for by hotel and resort guests during their stay, to construct the first two phases of the rowing venue with help of an additional $10 million from the state, which paid for the wave attenuation system, access bridge to the island and other land development and amenities.

In 2012, the lake was dredged and extended 200 meters to allow 2,000-meter races and international competition. Work then began on extending Cattleman Road and adding a bridge to serve the venue.

The four-lane Cattleman Road extension was paid for through a $13 million federal stimulus award and the remaining $1.5 million was paid by Benderson through a local development agreement, according to Sarasota County officials.

Dredge material from the lake and dirt from the construction of the Mall at University Town Center helped build what is now known as Regatta Island, where much of the rowing celebratory events and launches will take place. A tower for FISA to officiate the races still has to be built on the island along with grandstands, parking and a boat house for storage. SANCA will pay $15 million for improvements expected to be completed by 2015, through corporate sponsorships.

More public money for the park is always a possibility. When Gov. Rick Scott visited Benderson Park in August, he didn't rule out an option to provide more state funding for the venue because it created jobs and supports the state's tourism goals.

The park's west shore will feature an ornamental grass garden, natural playground, butterfly garden, water garden, fitness centers and a second pocket park is expected to be built north of the return canal near the Mall at UTC.

By 2017, the park is expected to be built out with bustling activity expected from the Mall at UTC, which will open October 2014, as well as the growing housing and retail complex beside the venue.

Production and bidding

Beyond the $40 million for the rowing venue and $14 million on Cattleman Road spent by a mix of local, state and federal tax revenues and private money, Sarasota and Manatee also chipped in to pay for the bidding process and have to pay for the operating budget for the games.

Just to land the games, each county budgeted $2.782 million, up from an original $1.1 million each, to pay for traveling to international events and hosting officials here at various events through 2017, sending officials to international regattas to study logistics and promote the local games. In all, Manatee and Sarasota counties will be fronting 72 percent of the $7.7 million operating budget for the 2017 championship.

The agreement limits county contributions from "bed taxes" generated by tourists and use of other legally available funds as well as in-kind services. That money will be reimbursed by SANCA, mainly through selling television and broadcasting rights and other commercial rights.

Organizers are banking on bringing in nearly $995,000 in ticket sales for the event. So far, tickets are expected to be sold for $80 to VIPs, $40 for grandstand seats and $20 for general admission.

Among the eight pages of operating expenses listed, SANCA is budgeted to spend $1 million to build compounds and production centers for TV, print and online media, $100,000 to rent a large video board and hire technicians, $126,000 to bus spectators, $128,000 on various boats for TVs, umpires, emergency workers and workers, $32,329 for testing athletes for banned substances and $303,757 for the opening and closing ceremonies, a dinner for all the athletes and parties for the jury, FISA officials and media.

The two counties may contribute in-kind services at their discretion.

Benderson Development agreed to provide a "financial backstop" for the nonprofit foundation's obligations, according to Manatee County Assistant County Attorney Bill Clague.

Staff writer Sabrina Rocco contributed to this report.

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