The Sarasota County Commission unanimously approved a multitude of contract and phasing changes for Nathan Benderson Park Wednesday, while reaffirming the county would not provide any more money for the project than the $20 million in tourist-tax revenue it already has pledged.
During the commission’s regular meeting in Sarasota, staff provided a detailed presentation that took more than an hour. The changes outlined were necessary, staff said, to enhance certain aspects of the park, to enable it to attract world-class rowing events, including Olympics competition.
Project Manager Paul Blackketter of Benderson Development told the County Commission in October that company representatives had worked with internationally known rowing officials to create a one-of-a-kind facility in the 600-acre park.
The changes, though, don’t come without increased costs and concerns about funding.
In approving the seven motions Wednesday, the commission agreed to make the following design changes:
• Reconfiguring the shape of the lake and constructing an enhanced aquatic center as part of the first phase.
• Reconfiguring a north lake and a pond.
• Creating a vehicular bridge between North Cattlemen Road and Park Island.
• Importing fill material from the Cattlemen Road extension to create an expanded 30-acre Park Island that was not in previous plans.
• Constructing buffers for neighborhoods in The Meadows that are close to the park.
• Improving community boat and fishing access.
• Creating pocket parks and restrooms, with the inclusion of paved parking.
• Creating an extensive trail along the entire lake for runners and walkers.
The votes Wednesday mean the first phase of the project, including the lake and Park Island, should be complete in March 2013, with the second phase slated for completion in July 2013.
The board action Wednesday also necessitated contract change orders. For example, one change order encompasses a 28.5% increase in cost, to $4.1 million, for the Cattlemen Road construction project. That makes it possible for the fill material to be used for Park Island.
Making the changes Wednesday, however, also will save money in the long run, officials noted.
The Park Island construction will begin in two weeks. County staff soon will bring back to the commission contracts for the vehicular bridge and parking lots.
The third phase of the project, however, does not have sufficient funding to proceed. Benderson representatives have been working to find state and private money to complete that part of the plan.
For example, Blackketter said the Florida Legislature included $5 million for the rowing facility in the budget it approved March 9; however, that line item is subject to veto by Gov. Rick Scott.
Blackketter said the changes were deemed necessary after the company continued reviewing its plans with international rowing officials.
“We designed this thing right to be a world-class facility,” Blackketter said. “We feel confident this will be built out and we can host a world-class championship in 2017.”
However, Commissioner Nora Patterson warned Benderson officials not to come back to the commission for any more money.
“I realize the vision has grown, but so have the monies,” Patterson said. “My concern is the county isn’t going to (put) any more money into this thing.”
Commissioner Jon Thaxton and others agreed.
“This is the county’s investment … period,” Thaxton said of the promised $20 million.
Blackketter reassured the commissioners and county staff that they need not worry.
While Thaxton called the park a significant investment, he said he didn’t have concerns about approving the changes.
“It’s just a couple holes in the ground right now and it’s already attracting outside visitors and community enthusiasm,” Thaxton said. “We have yet to build this, and rowers are already coming.”
Chairwoman Christine Robinson agreed, noting that even her south-county constituents were not complaining about the project, in spite of its location along University Parkway.
“This is affecting all of the county and it’s a community investment widely understood by our residents,” Robinson said.
The park is a welcome addition that won’t be fully achieved, though, until the rest of the money is raised, Patterson said.
“We now need people to step up as part of a more than $20 million investment, and I support this because the enthusiasm is pretty overwhelming,” Patterson said.