Sarasota commission OKs Benderson Park agreement

srocco@bradenton.comMarch 19, 2014 

Rowers race to the finish on the first day of the Masters Rowing Championship at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota.TIFFANY TOMPKINS-CONDIE/Bradenton Herald file photo

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SARASOTA -- An agreement between Sarasota County and a nonprofit organization looking to take on management of Nathan Benderson Park was approved Wednesday by the Sarasota County Commission.

Suncoast Aquatic and Nature Center Associates Inc., the nonprofit that already oversees the rowing venue, will be solely responsible for operation and maintenance of Benderson Park, a task currently held by Sarasota County. As a result, SANCA will be entitled to all revenue and proceeds from events held there.

"We're about the community, we're about partnership, bringing this together to make it happen, and failure is not an option," SANCA president Paul Blacketter told the commission.

SANCA was instrumental in securing the successful bid to host the 2017 World Rowing Championship, an event that is estimated to bring more than $24.5 million to the region, according to Visit Sarasota County. Construction on Benderson Park, a $19.5 million project, began in 2009, and SANCA was formed shortly after to provide management and fundraising for park improvements. It has been long anticipated that the nonprofit would operate and manage Benderson Park, the agreement says.

SANCA will run the park for the foreseeable future. The agreement will take effect April 15 through September 2019. If SANCA wants to stay and there is no breach of the agreement, the term will be extended 10 more years. Thereafter, the organization has the option of extending the term three times for a period of 10 years each.

But running a world class rowing venue will be an expensive venture. Sarasota County collected $18.7 million in Tourist Development Tax for construction of phases one and two. SANCA will be required to find funding and construct the remaining improvements in phase three, including a boat house, finish tower and grand stands -- renovations that total $22 million -- in order to renew the agreement in 2019.

In return, the county will reimburse SANCA for grounds maintenance, personnel, events and operating expenses -- bills that can total up to $581,439 for 2014 and $788,722 for 2015. After 2018, the county will only take care of maintenance, operating and administrative expenses.

Only two Sarasota residents came forward to oppose the agreement Wednesday.

"You have all potential revenues going to SANCA. This fails to protect the public first," said activist Cathy Antunes. "You have the public assuming all of the financial risk here and the rewards are going to this private entity."

Antunes, along with another resident, Adrien Lucas, accused Commissioner Joe Barbetta of acting unethically after SANCA entered into business with his wife, who operates an event planning business, Mary Kenealy Events LLC. Barbetta is registered as the manager on documents filed with the state.

"He has misused his position," Lucas told the commission.

Barbetta insisted that he was simply volunteering for the organization but abstained from voting on the agreement.

The rest of the commissioners voted 4-0 to approve the agreement.

"It's a real legacy moment of the county to create a situation that will lower expenses for county government, but increase possibilities for the future of the sporting venue. The county has made a whole-hearted decision that we're going to invest in this," Commissioner Christine Robinson said. "This is a step in the right direction, and I'm really proud of staff."

Commissioner Nora Patterson was equally excited for the future of Benderson Park.

"Yes, it's a bunch of money, but obviously we believe its worth it or we wouldn't be sticking our necks out."

Sabrina Rocco, University Park reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024. Follow her on Twitter@sabrinarocco.

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