2016 Olympic trials could be test event for Benderson Park

Rowing match would help prepare for 2017 World Championships

cschelle@bradenton.comSeptember 5, 2013 

SARASOTA -- The rowing campaign is not over yet for Nathan Benderson Park.

Now that the 2017 World Rowing Championship is guaranteed, the delegation has to secure a test event in 2016.

It's an Olympic year so the test event could be an U.S. Olympic trials, Glen Merry, chief executive officer of U.S. Rowing, told the Herald at an event Wednesday for Benderson Park, 2500 N. Honore Ave.

The 2016 Olympics will be held in Rio de Janeiro Aug. 5 to 21, which would throw off the schedule for a regular world or national FISA-sanctioned test event, Merry said, so an Olympic trials event could be an option in early 2016.

U.S. Rowing has not submitted a bid for the Olympic trials yet for 2016, Merry said, and an announcement is expected to be made at the end of 2014.

"We've been very interested pursuing this location," Merry said.

U.S. Rowing is also considering other options for a test event. A 2012 Olympic trials event at Mercer County Park in New Jersey was televised nationally on NBC, Merry said.

"In an Olympic year, it's difficult to get people to break out of their normal transition from Europe to World Cups, off to Rio for the Olympics," Merry said. "So, you may be looking at an international event, we may be looking at U.S. Rowing partnering to create a new international event. We may be taking one of our existing large national events as a test event."

Paul Blackketter, chief executive of Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Association, said the 2016 Olympics would

have a tremendous impact on Benderson Park and Fort Hamer Park, 1605 Fort Hamer Road, Parrish.

"Because of Rio de Janeiro and everything else, we're going start seeing the teams of the likes of Great Britain, Germany, actually training in this area," he said. "Fort Hamer plays a major supporting role of that venture."

That event would have a separate budget from the 2017 regatta, Merry said.

In order to get there, SANCA, the nonprofit that will operate the rowing venue, has to raise about $15 million to build the grandstand, boathouse and other remaining facilities, as well as the $7.7 million operating budget for the games.

The first step will be the boathouse where sculls will be stored, Blackketter said.

"We're already moving forward with the actual schematic drawings and everything else, so when we go and start fundraising, we actually have a building that they can understand and see how that's all laid out with a business plan attached to it."

The boathouse will be open to the public once they join a rowing club, Blackketter said.

"The only time that the island will be closed off is under big regattas. It's for security and other different reasons," he said. "We'll occupy the whole island for the event. You have to be able to run successful events without conflict, but once we're not having an event, it reverts back to a public park."

The goal is to have the structures in place by 2015-16 for the test event, he said.

While rowing receives the most attention during Olympic years, a U.S.-held international championship has the opportunity to create a boom for the sport, Merry said.

The 1994 World Rowing Championships in Indianapolis helped spur rowing clubs to increase from 388 that year to 1,200 clubs today, taking U.S. Rowing to more of an international organization for the sport, he said, in addition to the NCAA adding women's rowing to its sports.

Interest from the international rowing community in Sarasota-Bradenton has already started, Sarasota County Commissioner Joe Barbetta said.

"The world is coming to Sarasota-Bradenton," Barbetta said.

Interest in athletes coming to the area has already begun, too, he added.

"We had all kinds of inquiries -- how do we get there, where are you located -- we are seeing e-mails coming in right now," Barbetta said.

"They're going to start training here. They're going to come and scout the area out. This is going to just blossom into one of the most incredible things you've ever seen, both as a sport and also the economic development that will come out of this."

Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.

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