The Florida House has posed several inquiries into how Sarasota County and SANCA spent — and maybe didn’t spend — millions of dollars of public funding for its public rowing facility.
The county and Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates Inc., or SANCA, have received $15 million from either the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity or Enterprise Florida since 2012. In a letter to outgoing Sarasota County Administrator Tom Harmer and SANCA CEO Stephen Rodriguez, House Speaker Richard Corcoran details the House’s intention of collecting several documents related to the project.
“The Legislature has a duty to ensure taxpayer dollars are used in a fiscally responsible manner,” the Oct. 11 letter said. “That duty extends to the public funding of the Rowing Center Project. It appears that the project was not completed, but no funds were returned to the State of Florida.”
Enterprise Florida gave the county $10 million, while SANCA received $5 million, according to Harmer’s Oct. 26 response.
With the response were five invoices that detailed prices for dredging of the facility, design and capital improvements to the park.
The $6.85 million finish tower, paid for by the Nathan Benderson Community Park Foundation, was completed and ready to reveal a little less than two months before the 2017 World Rowing Championships were held in late September. Both the finish tower and the boathouse — which had touted a fitness center, event space, locker rooms, offices and boat storage — were supposed to be completed by January 2017. The boathouse was eventually pushed off to December 2020, and it is expected to cost $10 million.
Earlier this year, championships spokesman Max Winitz told the Bradenton Herald in an email that the “tower is a (World Rowing Federation) requirement to host a World Rowing Championships. A boathouse is not.”
State funding for the boathouse has not been realized because private matching funds weren’t available, according to an email of talking points sent by Manatee County Commission Chairwoman Betsy Benac to a resident voicing concerns about public funding.
“The House will not tolerate attempts to shield from public scrutiny financial information relating to the expenditure of public dollars,” Corcoran’s letter said. “The Legislature has enacted reforms and accountability measures to ensure transparency and good stewardship when it comes to public funds.”
The inquiries are still open and are part of an examination, said House spokesman Fred Piccolo.