Benderson Park exceeding goals, Sarasota County Commission told

SARASOTA -- Nathan Benderson Park is not only meeting its goals and expectations, but it's exceeding them in terms of economic impact, reports Paul Blackketter, president of Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center, the nonprofit that operates the park.

While the park is expected to host at least 40 events in 2015, there is still significant work ahead. The park's boathouse and finish tower must be constructed, along with the spectator area, island landscape, park playgrounds and pedestrian structures -- the third phase of the park's construction, which is expected to be completed by 2017.

Blackketter presented Sarasota County commissioners a 45-minute update Tuesday on the park's management and operations, including the park's history, construction updates and an update on the 2017 World Rowing Championships.

"I feel good on where we are now," Blackketter said. "I feel good with the plan. I feel good with the team... I think we are on track and moving in the right direction in regards to the plan and execution of the 'Worlds.' "

The three-story finish tower and spectator area is expected to be finished in April 2016 while the boathouse, which will include boat storage, restrooms, training center, classrooms and offices, is expected to be completed by the first quarter of 2017.

To raise funds to com

plete construction of the rowing venue, the Nathan Benderson Park Foundation was founded in September and as of Tuesday, the nonprofit has raised $5 million of the foundation's $11 million goal of private funding to be used toward the improvements.

Al Wolfson of Benderson Development told the commission the foundation hoped to raise the additional $6 million by the middle of February.

"Randy (Benderson) and the directors remain confident," Wolfson said.

The foundation received more than $3.5 million in contributions in its first 30 days, including a $2.5 million gift from the Benderson family.

Commissioner Christine Robinson asked for a fund-raising update to the commission in March or April.

"I want to perhaps have some more frequent meetings about it until we are confident that we are on track and have that for 2017," she said.

By 2018, SANCA and Benderson Park must be self-sustaining, Blackketter said.

"The plan is set in place and we are moving towards that and we are growing," he said. "The cost of the events go down and the revenue goes up and then we move forward well and beyond 2018."

The International Breast Cancer Paddlers' Commission Dragon Boat Festival, held in October at Benderson Park, had a $6.5 million dollar economic impact to the area, Blackketter said.

Moving forward, if anything is going to limit Benderson Park from hosting international events, he said, it will be transportation in Sarasota and Bradenton. From an international perspective, the ability to get from point A to point B is important.

"They don't rent cars. They get on bikes. They walk," he said, adding that this area could do a test program to show that the area can be bike and walking friendly. "I think Sarasota-Bradenton can be that pilot and move in that direction, as well."

The World Rowing Championships are scheduled for Sept. 23-Oct. 1, 2017. SANCA is also hoping to host the rowing Olympic time trials and will submit bids to the international rowing federation (FISA) by March to host the 2017 World Rowing Coastal Championships and the 2018 World Rowing Masters Regatta.

"I challenge everyone in our community to get out there and volunteer," Commissioner Charles Hines said. "It's there for everybody."

Also on Tuesday, the commission approved waiving the one-year limitation on filing a rezoning application for the 42-acre property at Fruitville and Coburn roads, a Benderson Development project.

The commission also approved having public hearings before eliminating the fare for Sarasota County Area Transit riders 80 years old and older, less than about 2 percent of SCAT total ridership. In September, the Manatee County Commission submitted a formal request to Sarasota County asking the commission to follow suit with Manatee County and eliminate the already-reduced fare for these riders. The highest potential revenue loss for Sarasota County is about $11,000, according to SCAT director Rocky Burke.

Robinson said she doesn't want to just be a follower of Manatee County: "While Manatee County operates a good system, we are very different than Manatee County and I don't want to use what they are doing and apply it to us because its not a one size fits all," she said. "We have to apply some independence."

Claire Aronson, University Parkway/Sarasota reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.