SARASOTA -- Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday reaffirmed his commitment helping make Nathan Benderson Park a top rowing venue as international rowing officials are deciding whether Sarasota-Manatee will host the 2017 World Rowing Championship.
Scott, who once vetoed funding for the rowing park, attended a VIP gathering at the park Thursday morning during the U.S. Rowing Masters National Championship where he left open the door for more public money to be committed to the project.
"What I focus on is making sure we can get a return," Scott told the Bradenton Herald. "As long as we can get a return for taxpayers, I'm interested in these projects."
The state put $5 million in this year's budget to fund continued construction of the rowing venue. The state also previously committed a $5 million grant to the park for a wave attenuation system to reduce choppiness on the lake.
"We should be the absolute, No. 1 tourist destination in the world," Scott said. "It's not going to happen unless you make things like this happen."
Sarasota County Commission committed $19.5 million in tourist development taxes, or bed taxes paid by hotel guests, to Benderson Park,
which included $8.5 million for dredging and filling the lake to build Regatta Island; and $11 million for landscaping and park amenities. The boathouse, rowing officials towers and grandstands are to be paid by private donations through the non-profit Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates, which organizes rowing in the two-county area.
"I want to grow jobs. This will grow jobs, and this is why I'm interested in this," Scott said. "It's a great project. I want to thank the Benderson family, everybody in Sarasota, everybody in Manatee for supporting this."
While Scott sang the praises of Benderson Park, a deluge of public officials flooded a VIP area to express their optimism for the region and the rowing venue among a sparse spectator crowd early Thursday.
"This is really a game-changer. This is global and that's what we ought to be thinking," Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston said. "It introduces Sarasota County and Manatee County to the rest of the world. It'll put us all on the map."
State Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, is also ecstatic about how rowing has and will bring more tourism to the region.
"We are now a world-class international destination for the sport of rowing," Galvano said. "Growing up in this area, I never thought we would be recognized for something like this."
Galvano stressed that visitors from Europe and around the world will not only come for rowing. They'll come to see other parts of the state thus driving more dollars into the economy.
Officials from the International Rowing Federation, or FISA, are in attendance at Benderson Park this weekend to give it one last look before deciding Sept. 2 if the venue will be awarded both the 2016 World Rowing Cup and 2017 World Rowing Championship. Sarasota County estimates a $24-million economic impact in its county for the 10-day event.
U.S. Rowing CEO Glenn Merry is confident the World Rowing Championship will be awarded to Sarasota-Manatee.
"We will secure the vote to bring the championships here," Merry said.
Some of the detailed questions by international rowing officials offer positive signs that they are interested in bringing the championships here, he added.
"At 1 a.m., what does the wind look like coming off the Gulf of Mexico? Those are the good type of detailed questions to have," Merry said.
U.S. Rowing has big plans for the venue, Merry said. U.S. Rowing wants to have training camps at the lake, and relocate regional and national championships on a rotating basis to Sarasota and Manatee.
"We see this as the future of our sport. We see this as an important partnership that will drive rowing to new heights," Merry said. "There are 250,000 participating in rowing in the United States, and we think we can double that. We think the starting point is the 2017 World Championship."
The World Championship could bring in 42,000 people and expose the Sarasota-Manatee region to 130 million global viewers, said Sharon Hillstrom, president and chief executive officer of Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp. Beyond the University Parkway corridor, officials expect businesses near other rowing facilities at Ft. Hamer Park in Parrish and Little Sarasota Bay in Osprey to benefit, truly making a regional impact.
Manatee County Commissioner Betsy Benac is confident that Sarasota will secure the 2017 World Rowing Championship.
"I'm very optimistic," Benac said. "The acknowledgement of the FISA board has only once been ignored, so I'm optimistic that they would consider the recommendation."