Download a project timeline here.
SARASOTA COUNTY — The first time Sarasota Scullers head coach Dragos “Alex” Alexandru saw the lake at Nathan Benderson Park, his thoughts turned immediately to rowing.
“I knew it was perfect for racing,” Alexandru said.
With some prodding of key players at Sarasota County and Benderson Development, his vision began to take hold. And now, when Alexandru flies to New Zealand in November for the World Rowing Championships, he’ll be inviting international coaches to bring their teams to train at the lake that has been a stomping ground for local rowers for years.
On July 14, Sarasota County commissioners approved a master site plan for Nathan Benderson Park that includes a 2,000-meter rowing course, grandstands, ample parking, a boathouse and other amenities to make the site one of the most sought-after rowing locations across the globe.
“Now, it’s a dream that’s coming into fruition,” said Paul Blackketter, project manager for Benderson Development and one of the key players in the development of the project. “We just announced to the world we’re in the rowing business.”
As part of its University Town Center mega mall project, Benderson Development will extend Cattlemen Road from Richardson Road north so it will connect to University Parkway. The developer has reconfigured the roadway so that the lake at Benderson Park can be lengthened to accommodate a 2,000-meter race. Currently it is limited to 1,500-meter races.
Races will start from the southern portion of the lake, part of which will be inset slightly to mitigate wind at the starting line. Covered grandstands with restroom facilities will straddle the finish line from the shore of the northern part of the lake. That general location also will be home to a boathouse, parking for visitors and rowers, a volleyball court and docks for rowers.
Four “adventure” parks, including ornamental grass, water and butterfly gardens and a natural playground, are planned for the western shoreline of the lake for the public to use, as well as several fitness stations. Regatta-goers also will be able to use the one-mile stretch to watch races unfold.
A smaller body of water to the north of the main lake will offer boat and bike rentals, a playground and concessions, among other amenities.
“It far exceeds everyone’s expectations,” Sarasota’s General Manager of Parks and Recreation John McCarthy said of the facility. “No one ever dreamed that we had such a unique asset sitting here. What you have seen unfold is not just the rowing piece, but a community park that works for everybody.”
Organizers say the site could also be used for corporate and adaptive rowing events, cross country and 5K events, weddings, multi-purpose grandstand events, canoe and kayak races and dragon boats.
Jason Puckett, sports manager for the Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau, said since February, the facility already has hosted four rowing regattas. Combined, the events drew more than 30,000 people, of which more than 8,000 were unique visitors to the area. Additionally, the regattas had an economic impact of $4.5 million.
Rowing, training and other events combined, the facility is expected to have an economic impact of $25 million annually.
The park is expected to cover its operating costs, including maintenance and depreciation.
So far, Sarasota commissioners have only approved the project conceptually and have allowed staff to go out to bid for the first phase of the project, which is largely funded. Overall, however, they have not yet signed off on ways to pay for the entire project but may consider bonds and/or implementing a portion of the half-cent tourist tax as ways to generate funds for the project. The project, in total, is expected to cost between $25 million and $29 million, if all three phases are approved.
For more information on the project, visit www.sarasotafl.org/sports/rowing.
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].
The rowing facility has received the endorsement of rowing icons such as Chip Davis, publisher of Rowing News Magazine, Olympic rower and gold medalist Jason Read, Executive Director of Community Rowing and U.S. National Team coach Bruce Smith and Rowing Canada’s John Lehnen, who all spoke before commissioners at the public hearing last week.