If state money has anything to do with it, Manatee County may just realize its ambitions to be a sports tourism destination.
Still in the budget after the Legislature finished its session shortly after 7 p.m. Friday was $7.3 million for the area's sports efforts, including $5 million for a rowing facility at Nathan Benderson Park and $2.3 million to help IMG Academy attract professional, college, high school and youth sporting events.
The state's budget must still go to the governor for approval before anyone can start celebrating and Gov. Rick Scott can still veto any line item in the budget.
The amount designated for IMG is lower than early versions of the budget that included $3 million for the academy, which attracts athletes from around the world. The sports performance company headquartered in the heart of Bradenton has launched a major expansion and is working to attract more events as it opens its gates to the public.
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The state money is designed to help the academy attract events from across the country and overseas.
"The boost IMG brings at all levels is immeasurable," said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. "They bring people literally from
all over the world. The dollars in the budget will help them achieve further expansion opportunities for amateur sports and help them bring in other business entities that would help the economy."
Chip McCarthy, chief financial officer for IMG Academy's parent company, IMG Performance, said that IMG is working to attract a lot of events that are currently out of state. Getting those events would be great for the community, but some of them would require IMG to add to its facilities or to even build specifically for the event. "Most, if not all of those events, will be open to the public," he said.
The state money is designed to give IMG a boost in attracting those events to Florida.
"We asked the state to help us with that, understanding that the impacts of those events are significant," McCarthy said. "We feel that the return on that investment is high. It's a fair partnership."
McCarthy said IMG has been talking to the state for several years about a public-private partnership as they have been making plans for a $36 million 100-acre plus campus expansion.
We feel it is a good investment on their part," McCarthy said. "We have a proven track record. We have been in business for 35 years."
IMG Academy is set to cut the ribbon this month on a new residence hall for 500 student athletes who train and attend school there.
The $15 million residence hall is designed to help the school increase its student body from about 800 to 1,300 -- most of those students coming from out of the area. In August it will unveil its new multisport complex with stadium seating for 5,000 spectators and capacity to expand for 10,000.
IMG Academy also boasts more than 700 employees and their aggressive growth plans are likely to bring even more jobs.
"We've made a commitment to the area and to the state," McCarthy said. "We have been approached by many out-of-state developers and other states, but since we made a commitment to Florida, we are asking for the state to make a little bit of a commitment on their part."
This is the first year the state has included money in the budget for IMG, McCarthy said. "It's meaningful and important to us and it will provide a great return."
Manatee County and Bradenton city officials have enthusiastically embraced IMG and have helped to celebrate its expansion plans. When the company committed to staying and helped develop its sports tourism destination program, local officials breathed a huge sigh of relief that the company was staying.
"Everyone we've talked to supports what we are doing," McCarthy said. "We understand that this is a commitment from the state, but we deliver what we promise."
Galvano described IMG as an asset to Manatee County and to the state, "and in many ways an unsung asset."
This is a company that brings literally millions of dollars from other nations," Galvano said. "You can't call it anything but a state asset."
Toni Whitt, business and education editor, can be reached at 941-745-7087. Follow her on Twitter @ToniTWhitt.