$19.5 million rowing agreement approved for Benderson Park

SARASOTA -- The Sarasota County Commission this week approved an agreement with Benderson Development Co. to begin a $19.5 million project adding competitive rowing amenities at Nathan Benderson Park.

Construction on the rowing course and facility is slated to begin in July, after spring regattas scheduled on the lake are over, according to Curt Preisser, a spokesman for Sarasota County.

The first phase calls for dredging and filling along the west side of the lake in order to extend its racing course from 1,500 meters to 2,000 meters, with completion slated for December, he said.

Phase II calls for infrastructure improvements and work on park amenities, such as landscaping, playground, and picnic areas, with completion slated for December 2013, he said.

The 500-acre lake at 2500 Honore Ave. has already attracted six regattas for this spring, beginning with the Sarasota Invitational Rowing Regatta set for Feb. 26-27 and hosted by the Sarasota County Rowing Club.

Construction at Benderson Park is part of an effort to develop world-class rowing facilities at three sites across Manatee and Sarasota counties that could attract thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of competitive rowers and spectators each year, officials have said.

Manatee County has already invested $825,000 in rowing amenities at Fort Hamer Park, located where Fort Hamer Road dead-ends at the Manatee River.

The park attracted northern competitive rowers for the first time this year, and drew rave reviews.

“It doesn’t take a rowing expert to look at these counties’ potential and say, ‘It’s awesome, baby,’ ” Christina C. McClintock, a rower who practiced in the area recently, wrote in the The Harvard Crimson, a publication at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass.

The rowing partnership among Benderson and Sarasota and Manatee counties has also spurred interest at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, which is planning to launch its first athletic team.

The official announcement of the new USF Sarasota-Manatee Crew Team, in partnership with Sarasota Crew, is set for Feb. 3 at Historic Spanish Point, 343 Palmetto Ave., Osprey, officials said.

“We will be announcing more detail next Thursday about the excitement about our first athletic team -- our crew team -- and how we will play a role in the regional effort for rowing and economic development,” Chris Manring, a spokeswoman at USF.

Construction at Benderson Park will affect the wildlife there, acknowledged Sarasota County Commissioner Jon Thaxton on Thursday.

“We will be removing some of that edge habitat, and that edge habitat does have wildlife in it, primarily wading birds -- bitterns, herons, egrets, ibis and also probably some fish and amphibian species as well, would be in that habitat,” Thaxton said.

“Some will be affected, and it will be lost, to be honest,” he said.

However, the county will mitigate the loss with a lush wildlife preserve it has developed at Interstate 75 and Fruitville Road.

“Take efforts that the county voluntarily did at Celery Fields (preserve), it mitigates the impacts at Benderson Park a thousand times over again,” he said. “We’re taking a very small wetland habitat and, you could say, we’re exchanging it for a nationally significant wetland habitat. It’s not a bad swap.”