EAST COUNTY — As Nathan Benderson Park readies to become a world-class venue, officials are also working to make it fit for people at home.
Construction on the west side of the park — and its five “pocket parks” — is ongoing.
The original plan for this now-closed portion of the park, dubbed phase two of the overall project, calls for separate ornamental, water and butterfly gardens, a playground and a fitness center.
Carolyn Brown, director of Sarasota’s Parks and Recreation department, says the west side of the park will be ready for public use in the spring.
Other amenities, such as running paths around the lake, picnic areas and a “bird island” observational area, should be ready at that time, as well.
“Nathan Benderson Park will be an amazing, world-class place,” Brown said. “It’s an evolving, ever-changing plan that will continue to morph to meet the needs of these competitions. But, we want to make the park attractive for all types of recreational activities, as well.”
Initial efforts at the park, located off University Parkway and Cattlemen Road, have focused on the rowing facilities — dredging, lengthening and deepening the lake to meet international rowing standards for a 2,000-meter sprint course and using dirt removed from the lake to create a 30-acre regatta island — for good reason.
In September, Nathan Benderson Park was named the venue for the 2017 World Rowing Championships, the sport’s biggest competition outside of the Olympics.
Another announcement Dec. 3 confirmed the park as an international destination, when the Pentathlon International Federation chose Sarasota-Bradenton to host four world pentathlon events in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
Most of the pentathlon events — which consist of fencing, pistol shooting, equestrian, swimming and running — will be held at Nathan Benderson Park.
But ever since the Sarasota County Board of County Commissioners approved a conceptual plan for the park in July 2010 that included the 2,000-meter rowing course, grandstands, ample parking, a boathouse and other amenities, officials have strived to make it a place the public can enjoy alongside the Olympic-level athletes.
Benderson Development is under contract with the county to do the work.
Sarasota County has pledged a maximum of $19.5 million for the entire park.
To encourage the public to use the park, officials have pushed to make it publicly accessible — and attractive.
In May, Sarasota County officials unveiled the North Cattlemen Road extension, connecting Fruitville Road and University Parkway. The roadway extended North Cattlemen Road about 2.8 miles, from Richardson to Desoto roads.
It includes four 12-foot-wide travel lanes, 4-foot-wide bicycle lanes, a 10-foot sidewalk along the western side of the roadway, two 30-foot span bridges and other road-related structures, such as lighting, stormwater ponds and medians.
It also features the realignment of a land bridge along Nathan Benderson Park to provide better access to the venue.
The community showed its support in June, when Sarasota’s Nik Wallenda prepared for his walk across the Grand Canyon at Nathan Benderson Park.
The park has also hosted 5K races, dozens of rowing regattas and a stand-up paddle boarding event, among others.
Smaller water bodies to the north of the main lake, and the land around them, will offer opportunities for other recreational activities, such as canoeing, boating, bicycling and more.
“While all of this work goes on, we have tried to make it as publicly accessible as possible,” Brown said.
Officials are not waiting for the work to finish.
Nathan Benderson Park has bids in to host the NCAA Rowing Championships in 2015, 2016 and 2017 and international Olympic qualifier regattas in 2016.
Also in 2014, the rowing park will host the International Breast Cancer Paddlers Commission’s Dragon Boat Festival, which is expected to attract 4,000 people.
Some of the ongoing work required to host world events will bring a side benefit to the public, as well.
Crews continue to install a wave-attenuation system in the lake, which will mitigate waves and create a smooth rowing surface.
Brown expects the wave system to be ready by summer.
“All of this maximizes the future of Nathan Benderson Park,” Brown said.
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].