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Disturbing the ghosts of Fort Hamer

I’m sure there are ghosts from the Seminole Wars that still haunt Fort Hamer.

You can no more see them -- the ghosts of the U.S. soldiers and the Seminoles who fought several bloody wars in these parts and across much of Florida -- than you can see old Fort Hamer. They are all long gone, vanished into history.

In recent years, Fort Hamer always has struck me as a sad and isolated place. The river there is beautiful, yes, but located at the end of a dead-end road. It has often been neglected, the target of vandals.

But new life is coming to that area. Fort Hamer is no longer so isolated. New communities have grown up to the edge of Fort Hamer, and Williams Elementary School is just a short drive north.

There’s talk that a new bridge will be constructed across the river there, tying Upper Manatee River on the south to Fort Hamer Road on the north.

That would create a new axis between Parrish and Lakewood Ranch, but there’s still the matter of a pending federal environmental impact statement. The results of that study will be decisive in whether the bridge is ever built.

The possibility of a new bridge and new communities near Fort Hamer were apparent a decade ago.

What wasn’t apparent was that Fort Hamer would become part of sports tourism in Manatee-Sarasota, and that Harvard University and other top flight colleges would train their rowing teams there.

On Friday, the county’s rowing training facility opened at Fort Hamer, and craggy-faced legend Harry Parker said he believes many other college teams will want to put their oars in the Manatee River there.

For the record, there were hundreds of folks there for the ceremony. It was not the Fort Hamer we’re accustomed to.

Parker led Harvard to 20 undefeated rowing seasons, a level of dominance rarely seen in sport. What he says has tremendous sway and credibility in the rowing community.

Manatee County plowed $825,000 into Fort Hamer to put in an 8,000-square-foot boat house and restroom facilities, and give the area a good sprucing up.

The rowing training facility is being touted as the latest big idea for Manatee-Sarasota, one that will generate millions of dollars in new revenue annually as rowing teams and their followers make their way to the area for training and competition.

An early dividend is the 180 athletes that Parker brought with him who will be staying in local hotels, eating in local restaurants, and buying gas and other supplies through next week.

That’s all extra business for the Manatee-Sarasota economy, which sorely needs all the help it can get.

Manatee County has had other big ideas in the past, including the creation of a regional water source at Lake Manatee and construction of Port Manatee.

The rowing facility is a bargain at less than $1 million, and has the potential to pay off well beyond the county’s investment.

The rowing idea has so much power, coming at the right place and right time, with the added bonus of being a partnership between Manatee and Sarasota counties, and Benderson Development. The Fort Hamer facility ties in well with Benderson’s competitive venue on a 400-acre lake at I-75 and University Parkway, and another training area at Osprey. It’s inspired how it all seems to fit together.

Someone called it a “visionary idea.” That sums it up pretty well.

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

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