EAST COUNTY — Nearly four years ago, Paul Blackketter told the East County Observer a small lake that was once a construction borrow pit would be the rowing course for the United States.
Four years from now, Nathan Benderson Park, transformed and unrecognizable since Blackketter’s prediction, will be the rowing course for the world.
Sarasota’s Nathan Benderson Park has been named the venue for the 2017 World Rowing Championships, the sport’s biggest competition outside of the Olympics.
The Swiss-based International Federation of Rowing Association’s (FISA) 137-member congress picked Sarasota over Plovdiv, Bulgaria, in a unanimous vote Labor Day weekend in Chungju, South Korea.
A contingent from Sarasota and Manatee counties, including representatives from the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Association (SANCA), the non-profit group that made the bid — which Blackketter heads — witnessed the selection in person.
The group returned from Korea the night of Sept. 3, after the East County Observer went to press.
There hasn’t been a world rowing championship in the United States since 1994.
“Five years ago, a small group of people had this dream of what might be,” said Nicole Rissler, the sports director of the Sarasota County Sports Commission. “When the decision was made to make this facility (Nathan Benderson Park) the best, the goal was always to go after the biggest event. In one weekend, we saw those dreams become reality.”
Winning the bid will bring a world stage to East County, but it also carries significance that hits closer to home.
Officials estimate the 10-day World Championships will attract more than 42,000 people and 1,500 athletes to Sarasota and Manatee counties and have a regional economic impact of $25 million.
The investment, a partnership between taxpayers and Benderson Development, a Manatee County-based development company, will be a boon to the area’s restaurants, hotels, stores and attractions, including The Mall at University Town Center, which comes online in October 2014.
A group that included Blackketter, a project manager for Benderson and chief operating office of SANCA, Randy Benderson, president of the development company, Ed Hunzeker, Manatee County administrator, and more, spent days in Chungju at the site of the 2013 championships to curry favor with the rowing community and learn best practices.
“We are very excited about winning the bid and now the work really begins,” Blackketter said in an email from Korea. “Our partnership and dedication to this venture has been relentless, and we owe much gratitude to all our volunteers, organization committee members and partners. This will be an exciting four years until the event where we will be able market ourselves as a true international sporting community to last long after the championships.”
Sarasota and Manatee counties have collectively already put $5.6 million — through tourism bed tax dollars — to the 2017 World Rowing Championships.
Gov. Rick Scott allocated $5 million for infrastructure work to the park, adding to previous state contributions.
Over the next two years, construction crews will build a boathouse and start and finish towers, the core of an expansion to facilities that requires Suncoast to raise another $15 million.
Benderson Development has pledged to cover any financial shortfall for which fundraising cannot pay.
Planners believe they have enough lodging.
Sarasota and Manatee counties have 22,000 lodging units between them, a figure that includes condos and traditional hotels.
Benderson plans to build two new hotels, as part of the Mall at University Town Center, in time for a World Cup competition Nathan Benderson Park will host in 2016.
The 2014 Dragon Boat Festival, the park’s first major international event, which will bring more than 2,500 paddlers, will provide another test run.
As part of its 300-plus-page bid package, officials have reserved specific hotels for the athletes, who will come to train two weeks to a month before the World Rowing Championships.
“Now you have a by-product,” Rissler said. “We have enough, but now that we earned the bid, we can attract additional hotels and commercial businesses.”
Blackketter, an East County resident and rowing enthusiast whose daughter, Chloe, rows at Stetson University, has banked on the sport for the last 10 years, as he traveled the globe to study rowing and aquatic facilities.
Progress to date on Nathan Benderson Park has been as big as Blackketter’s vision.
Thirty million dollars in taxpayer money went into the park’s construction, including $1.5 million from Manatee County, $19.5 million from Sarasota County and $10 million from the state.
The lake at Benderson Park was dredged and Cattlemen Road extended to make the course an Olympic-sized 2,000 meters.
Dredge material from the lake and dirt from the construction of the Mall at University Town Center helped build a Regatta Island.
Along with the start and finish towers, which will house FISA representatives officiating the event and media, and the boathouse, the island will also have grandstands and parking.
The $2,782,000 each county budgeted to land the event will continue to fund traveling to more international events and hosting rowing officials through 2017.
Officials hope the investment pays fruit beyond 2017.
“When you look back in 10 to 20 years and think to what Sarasota was a part of, you will say that the 2017 World Rowing Championships left a legacy,” Rissler said.
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].