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Nathan Benderson Park to be added to Interstate 75 signs to direct visitors to Sarasota park

UNIVERSITY PARK -- Nathan Benderson Park could soon be added to Interstate 75 signs.

At its Tuesday meeting, the Sarasota County Commission could take action to add the park and venue of the 2017 World Rowing Championships to I-75 signs at the Fruitville Road interchange directing motorists to the park. Florida Department of Transportation has to receive a written request from the commission and the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization.

According to a letter from Mark Cunningham, assistant county administrator, to county Administrator Tom Harmer, Florida Department of Transportation is "agreeable with signing Benderson Park on I-75 for both the northbound and southbound directions.

"The intent of the signage is to provide direction and other pertinent information about the county's Nathan Benderson Park to interstate travelers," the letter reads. "Although there are restrictions associated with interstate signage, the FDOT Central Office granted approval to evaluate the park as a major tourist attraction due to its regional importance and types of events being planned and held at the county-owned facility."

Paul Blackketter, president of the nonprofit Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates, which operates the park, said the name being added to the interstate signs will further affirm it as a destination.

"I think the park has elevated itself to the level where it should be recognized as a destination," Blackketter said. "I think this is just another good direction overall for the park in marketing and the partnership between Sarasota and Manatee is great."

Drew Winchester, Sarasota County spokesman, said: "FDOT will permit the park signage on I-75 in the northbound and southbound directions at the Fruitville interchange with a written request from the MPO."

Before the park can be signed on I-75, FDOT has four conditions according to the Sarasota County letter:

A written request about the park signage on I-75 from the Sarasota/Manatee MPO and Sarasota County Commission.

FDOT will try to incorporate the southbound signage installation into the University Park diverging diamond project when construction begins in August.

FDOT is OK with adding the park to the northbound sign ahead of the Fruitville Road interchange project, which has only been funded for design.

FDOT will design and determine optimal locations and the county will fund construction and installation of all signs except the I-75 southbound sign.

Nathan Benderson Park was previously considered to be added to the sign on I-75 southbound at University Parkway, which would have required one of four existing destinations -- New College of Florida, University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, the Sarasota Kennel Club dog track and Ringling Museum of Art -- to be removed to make way for the rowing facility. FDOT allows a maximum of two signs with two destinations each before an exit, and these four destinations are already signed at the southbound I-75 and University Parkway location.

County staff also looked into adding signage off the interstate such as "Fruitville Road and other side streets to direct visitors to the park," according to the county letter.

FDOT spokesman Robin Stublen said "an additional trailblazer sign will be installed on Fruitville at a location to be determined to assist motorists."

The MPO, which meets next Monday, discussed the sign and possible changes at its December meeting where local officials said Benderson Park needs to be signed from both directions to direct people to the park.

A I-75 overpass near the Mall at University Town Center and Nathan Benderson Park, initially scheduled to come before the commission Tuesday, is not on the agenda. Jason Bartolone, Sarasota County spokesman, said the county could have another public meeting to address questions and comments from the last overpass meeting in January.

The overpass is proposed between Lakewood Ranch Boulevard and North Cattleman Road, with a second phase of the roadway extension to Honore Avenue. The improvement would provide a new route to the Mall at University Town Center and Nathan Benderson Park and serve as an alternative to University Parkway. The overpass roadway is proposed to be built near the southern end of Nathan Benderson Park.

Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024 or at caronson@bradenton.com. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.

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