Request for up to $11 million for Nathan Benderson Park improvements passed over by Florida Legislature

UNIVERSITY PARK -- Nathan Benderson Park will not receive any funding in the 2016 state budget as the Florida Legislature winds down its special session.

The park's nonprofit foundation, which has been trying to raise private donations for capital improvements to solidify its status as a world-class rowing facility, had hoped for at least $5 million in state funds to match what the foundation says it already has in the bank.

But the park, which is owned by Sarasota County and run by a nonprofit foundation, is not among a list of hometown projects approved for funding. The list includes private entities such as IMG Academy in Bradenton, which was appropriated $2 million late Tuesday evening.

State Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, had submitted an appropriations request for upwards of $11 million for Nathan Benderson Park to the Transportation & Economic Development Subcommittee in March, stating "the capital improvements are necessary to transition operations at the 600-acre county-owned park to a self-sustaining facility." The request was predicated on a match by the park foundation from private donations.

On Wednesday, Steube said he didn't know why Benderson Park didn't get into the budget but is confident it will receive some funding in the future.

"I have got some assuranc

es from the leadership after conversations with them that they will work with us next year," Steube said.

The state Legislature did approve funding for Nathan Benderson Park of $5 million in both 2013 and 2014 for park infrastructure and other improvements.

"Very, very disappointing," is how Mike Bennett described the outcome. The former state senator, who serves on the board of the Nathan Benderson Park Foundation and is Manatee County's supervisor of elections, visited the special session in Tallahassee last week but to no avail.

"I realize that a lot of money has flowed down to the park. But when you look at the return the rowing facility has given to the state, it's probably better than any investment made in the past, and I would put it up against any investment they made in the present," Bennett said.

The foundation's money-raising efforts are helping to begin construction in mid-July of a $5 million, four-story Finish Tower that will 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.

"The foundation has raised enough money for the Finish Tower, which will allow us to serve the world rowing champs and be the premier venue for rowing," said SANCA Chief Operating Officer Paul Blackketter.

The tower is key to the operations of the upcoming 2016 U.S. Olympic Rowing Team Trials, as well as the 2017 World Rowing Championships, both scheduled to take place at the park.

Blackketter said a $10 million boathouse, yet to be built, is more important to the local community because it will serve as an area where local residents can learn to row.

Pointing to the appropriation approved for IMG, Bennett said he doesn't understand why there was so much appropriated to private entities and not the Benderson facility.

"The facility is a gift that will keep on giving. The state is the recipient of millions of dollars of tax money generated from the park. I'm really upset about the Legislature taking taxpayer money and giving money to private corporations. This is a publicly held facility," Bennett stated.

State Rep. Jim Boyd R-Bradenton, whose district includes IMG, said he didn't ask for the IMG appropriation but he supports it.

"It adds enormous economic following to the local area and to the state," Boyd said. "I'm disappointed about Benderson Park. It's a great venue that brings opportunity from all over the world. I'm starting ideas with others on how we might respond in the future."

Chip McCarthy, IMG's senior vice president and co-managing director, said in a statement that the funds would be used for "a campus project to help attract leading sports performance businesses to the Bradenton area."

"IMG Academy provides an estimated $700 million annual boost to the local economy and this investment will assist in further solidifying this community as a world-class training and sports performance destination," McCarthy said.

IMG did not respond to a request for more details. The $2 million is in addition to $7.3 million IMG has received from the state in the past two years.

Meantime, state Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, whose district includes northern Sarasota County where Nathan Benderson Park is located, told the Bradenton Herald he wants to help in the fall.

"If the park wants to try again, I suggest they let the representative whose district it lies in carry the load," Pilon said. "Committees start this fall and we are in session in January next year instead of March. I do believe we can get this done and we will have an opportunity in time."

-- Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, contributed to this report.

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

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