MANATEE — Last winter, legendary Harvard University rowing coach Harry Parker took a boatride down the Manatee River.
He concluded it would be an ideal site for a 5,000-meter rowing race course, along with a training facility at the county’s Fort Hamer Park.
“They got to Fort Hamer, and Coach Parker said, ‘This is where I want my students to train,’ ” reported County Planning Director John Osborne.
“When Harry Parker talks, the rowing world listens,” Osborne said.
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The venerable coach’s enthusiasm helped to launch preliminary plans now taking shape, designed to draw what may eventually be thousands or even hundreds of thousands of athletes, families and fans to the Bradenton area during the winter months for rowing training and racing.
If the area became a national or international rowing destination, the whole community could benefit — economically, accommodating all the visitors, and perhaps in other ways, such as in the form of a stimulus for local high schools to build their own rowing programs, officials said.
A county task force is putting together proposals that would add rowing amenities to Fort Hamer Park, including additional parking, restroom facilities, floating docks, rack systems to store racing boats, even living quarters on-site to help with security, said David Gustafson, the county planning department’s project manager.
City of Bradenton officials are also contemplating improvements downtown to accommodate the possibility of rowers and frequent crowds of spectators who would come to watch regattas, Gustafson said.
Manatee’s contingent is working in conjunction with their Sarasota counterparts, who are planning a shorter race course of about 2,000 meters, called a “sprint course;” boathouses, bleachers, two new hotels, parking and other amenities at Nathan Benderson Park, a former borrow pit located near Interstate 75 and University Parkway.
The Sarasota County Commission on Wednesday approved in concept a master plan for that park that would cost an estimated $25 million to $29 million.
If the Benderson park, which already hosts some races, were upgraded to a world-class facility, it would attract 100,000 for regattas and 4,000 to train, with an economic impact of $25.5 million annually, Jason Puckett, sports manager for the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau, told Sarasota commissioners. It would be operationally self-sustaining, officials said.
Similarly, rowing facilities in Manatee could produce a positive economic effect.
“Multiple teams will come to Manatee County from up north, and they’ll spend upwards of an estimated $150,000 per team, we could have up to 50 teams utilizing this facility during the winter months,” Gustafson said Friday. “It’ll pay for itself a hundred times over when it is all said and done.”
Indications are that the Manatee County Commission will approve $680,000 already allotted as part of the county’s capital improvement program for Fort Hamer Park, which would include improvements to accommodate rowers, Gustafson said. The park is located where Fort Hamer Road dead-ends at the river’s edge in East Manatee.
“We’re in the preliminary stages right now,” said Gustafson. “Our goal is to have this up and running by the time it’s too cold to be on the water up north.”
If the Manatee Country Commission OKs the idea, the Manatee River would host longer races that might start at the I-75 bridge, and end in downtown Bradenton, said Osborne.
Rowers practice now in Miami and Tampa, but Gustafson said no other place in the United States will have a 2,000-meter sprint course, a 5,000-meter long course, and a training facility all within a relatively compact, two-county area.
“You do the math — these Ivy League schools, (teams from) Georgia, Arkansas, come down here,” said Gustafson. “They’ll spend money in hotels, eating in our restaurants, at the outlet mall, it’s going to be nonstop.”
“As it grows, it could be more than 50 teams could come down here.”