Sarasota OKs plan for world-class rowing facility

SARASOTA — The Sarasota County Commission approved in concept Wednesday a master plan for Nathan Benderson Park that would transform it into a world-class rowing facility expected to attract more than 100,000 visitors a year, officials said.

Its estimated cost could be between $25 million and $29 million, but commissioners said they wanted more time to consider several options, so they chose to wait to make financing decisions.

However, the facility would be operated by a nonprofit and would cover its own operational costs, officials said.

The park would include 200 acres of land and a 400-acre lake, sandwiched between North Honore Avenue and Interstate 75.

“It’s a great honor to be part of such a project,” Jason Read, of Philadelphia, told the board. The 2004 Olympic gold medalist and member of the U.S. national rowing team added that “there is no better place in the world” to train for world championships or for the Olympics.

“When you build this, you will create the top rowing destination in America,” predicted Chip Davis, publisher of Rowing News, an internationally read magazine for rowing enthusiasts.

Rowing events at the park this year attracted 30,000 attendees with an economic impact of $4.5 million, according to Jason Puckett, sports manager at the Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau. He estimated a world-class facility would attract 100,000 for regattas and 4,000 to train, with an economic impact of $25.5 million.

The conceptual master plan calls for:

n A 2,000-meter rowing course;

n Multiple boathouses and bleachers seating 2,500;

n Flat-water amenities for such activities as dragon boats, kayaking, paddle boards and outreach programs;

n 8-16 lanes with world-class buoy systems, starting and finishing towers;

n Two new hotels nearby at University Town Center;

n A butterfly garden, walking trails and fitness center.

The plan could be accomplished in three phases, the first costing an estimated $7.5 million to 8.5 million and beginning next year, and including site work like dredging and filling, said John McCarthy, general manager of county parks and recreation.

The second phase, slated for 2012-13 with an estimated cost of $9 million to $11 million, would entail such improvements as the 2,000-meter rowing course, access roads, trails, pathways and landscaping, he said.

The third phase, slated for 2013-14, would carry an estimated cost of $9 million to $10 million, and would entail construction of a boathouse, bleachers, and starting and finishing towers, he said.

The project could be paid for via different options, such as a special assessment on commercial lands adjacent to the site; reallocation of $5 million from another purpose; or a half-cent increase in the county Tourist Development tax, a “bed tax” on accommodations, officials said.

Supporters said what rowers liked about the location was its clean, smooth water; close amenities like hotels, restaurants and shopping; and a world-class beach nearby for fun.

The county park last year was renamed in honor of the patriarch of Benderson Development LLC after the company and the family pledged $1 million to add amenities for rowing competitions.

“It’s wonderful,” said Randall Benderson, managing director for the Benderson company, after the meeting.

“The park will be a dream come true.”

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.