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Fort Hamer rowing facility officially opened (with gallery)

EAST MANATEE -- They called it a giant step toward making Manatee-Sarasota the center of the rowing universe in the United States -- if not in the world.

And a living legend said he was more than impressed not only with the speed with which a new $825,000 training facility was prepared for competitive rowers, but the final result at Fort Hamer Park.

The legend -- Harry Parker, who has coached Harvard to preeminence in the collegiate rowing world including 20 undefeated rowing seasons. He was on hand for the grand opening of the Fort Hamer facility Friday.

“We are truly impressed by the efforts made by Manatee and Sarasota,” Parker said. “We are looking forward to coming here for many years to train and we’re sure the word will spread and you will have many more teams coming here to train.”

The centerpiece of the facility is an 8,000-square-foot prefabricated boathouse that was delivered to the site Dec. 17. The boathouse is used to store the teams’ racing sculls.

“They put the last screw in last night,” Manatee County Commissioner John Chappie said of the final push to complete the boathouse.

On Friday, 180 members of the Harvard-Radcliffe rowing team ate a buffet breakfast while community leaders gathered for the ceremony.

The rowing facility at Fort Hamer, coupled with the competitive facility at Nathan Benderson Park just south of University Parkway, and a training facility in Osprey will help create jobs and is a tap into the sports tourism trend in the area, said emcee Rick Piccolo.

During the past several years, Benderson Development Co. proved that it could attract top-flight rowing teams to the area with its 400-acre lake at Interstate 75 and University Parkway.

The lake was originally a borrow pit which contributed road fill for construction of I-75.

“There is a lot of opportunity in that old borrow pit,” Chappie said, predicting that rowing could open the area to new kinds of economic activity.

An immediate bonus is the hotel rooms filled by the 180 rowers in the Ellenton area. The athletes are expected to be in the local area until Jan. 21.

The bold venture into rowing wouldn’t have happened, however, without the partnership between Benderson and the Manatee and Sarasota county governments, Piccolo said.

Most of the county commissioners from both counties were present for Friday’s ceremonial ribbon cutting.

“These are a tremendous set of facilities,” said Joe Barbetta, Sarasota county commissioner.

For his part, Parker said he was pleased by what he saw and having so many golf courses in the area was another plus.

“On behalf of the coaches and the rowers of Harvard, thank you for making this facility available to us,” he said.

Afterward, Parker commented: “We’re happy as clams. We’re here to row and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Among the Harvard rowers were Mick Malowany, of Toronto, and Nolan Pollock, of northern Virginia, both 19.

Last year, they said the Harvard team trained between skyscrapers in Miami but this year they have been training in the more natural setting of the Manatee River.

They appreciated the flat, calm nature of the river, calling it an ideal training environment.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee Editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.