Organization names Nathan Benderson Park as 'Venue of the Year'

UNIVERSITY PARK -- After hosting about 50 events in 2014, Nathan Benderson Park has been named the Venue of the Year by the Florida Sports Foundation.

The timing couldn't be better for the park's nonprofit foundation, which is asking for upwards of $11 million in matching funding from the Florida State Legislature, meeting in special session next week.

The Sarasota County park, 5851 Nathan Benderson Circle, has hosted rowing competitions, 5K races and dragon boat races. In 2014, the park drew more than 50,000 athletes and spectators and reports to have had an economic impact of more than $12 million.

Benderson Park will host the 2015 U.S. Rowing Youth National Championships in June, and has secured the 2017 World Rowing Championships. It has also been recognized as one of North America's best race courses by Rowing Magazine and has received distinctions from several athletic organizations.

Nathan Benderson Park Foundation, founded last year to raise private donations for the park's capital improvements, is poised to ask the state Legislature for at least $5 million to match $5 million in park improvements the foundation is beginning in July for the upcoming 2017 World Rowing Championships.

"We've actually raised over $9 million in pledged donations," said Mike Bennett, a member of the foundation's board and Manatee County's supervisor of elections. "I gave my commitment to the Legislature that I would not ask them for a single dime that we could

not match locally."

Bennett said the state recognition offers hope for contributions from the state.

"We think the opportunity for funding is extremely high now that the Sports Commission has recognized us," the former state senator said. "We've got payback to the state in terms of sales tax revenue, more and more visitors are coming to Florida because of the park, and this award tops it off. This recognition goes a long way in getting the Legislature to understand the value of the park."

Bennett plans to use his contacts in Tallahassee to facilitate approval of the funding.

"We've got a lot of people working on it on our behalf," he said.

Joseph Barbetta, former Sarasota County commissioner who was appointed earlier this year to oversee fundraising, says the foundation has hired a consultant to seek local and national corporate sponsors, offering them naming rights and amenity advertising. The foundation is raising money to build a $5 million, four-story tower to house competition referees and event officials, and a media center with offices and meeting rooms for the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center, the nonprofit that operates the park and reports to Sarasota County.

Construction may start as early as mid-July, Barbetta said, once Sarasota County approves the final site plan. Following this project, which is expected to take about a year to complete, plans call for building a 50,000-square-foot boathouse complex by 2017, just in time for the World Rowing event. That could cost about $11 million.

"We're working now on fundraising for the boathouse," Barbetta said. "We're almost finished building our new foundation website where people can donate directly online."

The people who conceived the park said the community has helped make it so successful. "Our park truly meets world-class standards. It's very clear when you come here, it's a functional, workable park that can serve everybody's needs," said Paul Blackketter, SANCA president. "This really takes a community partnership to make this happen, and that's how we got to where we are today."

Kathryn Moschella, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter @MoschellaHerald.