BRADENTON -- Whether it's manatees or sea grass, all life that calls the Manatee River home was the prime focus Friday at the first joint meeting of agencies responsible for gathering environmental information for a proposed Formula 2 Powerboat Super League racing event next February.
All local contracts have been signed and funds are already being invested into making the Feb. 6-7 festivities happen. Confidence is high that it will be a smooth process, but obstacles do remain.
Representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Marine Fisheries and others put their heads together to address environmental concerns for the first time since the event was proposed.
The Bradenton Downtown
Development Authority is working as the local coordinating agency for the event being organized by Integrated Strategic Marketing, and has retained Eco Consultants out of Palmetto to begin compiling data on each agency's concerns. That data will be included in a permit application to the Coast Guard, which will be the lead permitting agency for all on-water events.
The proposal to shut down the eastern lanes of the Green Bridge during the Saturday races, for spectator viewing and a 5K run to benefit Save the Manatees, is going through a separate permitting process through the Florida Department of Transportation.
"We only want to do this one way, and that's the right way," said DDA Executive Director Dave Gustafson.
Representatives of the various agencies acknowledged that when they first heard about the proposed event on the Manatee River, they were skeptical. But given the time of year the event is to take place, they appeared more confident that their concerns could be addressed -- especially since manatees congregate in warmer waters in February.
FWC Biologist Pet Plage said three key components will be need to be addressed. They include a habitat protection plan, an education plan to inform participants they are operating around endangered species, and an environmental watch plan that must include multiple observers during the event to ensure manatees, dolphins and other marine life prone to surface do not enter the area.
Should the Green Bridge close as organizers expect, observers can be placed on the bridge and at least one observation unit will patrol the event from a helicopter.
ISM President Michael Fetchko attended the meeting via conference call from Pittsburgh, where ISM is preparing for the annual Fourth of July weekend Powerboat Super League race that draws an estimated 175,000 people to the Three Rivers event.
"Our position is we'll do whatever you want to do," said Fetchko.
Coast Guard Lt. Commander Rick Foster explained that once the data is submitted to the Coast Guard, it takes an average of 135 days for approval, which includes a 30-day public comment period.
Fetchko said he needed a more definite time period for the permitting process considering the number of "third party" investors and participants, but representatives on Friday could only promise due diligence. With the event slated to occur in seven months, Fetchko said that could cause some anxiety "because nobody wants to get into this to lose money."
Gustafson said that no major concerns were presented that were not anticipated.
"I feel we have the right team and are definitely putting this into an accelerated gear," he said.
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014