The East County Observer reviews the top stories of 2013.
Sometimes, vision and strategy come to fruition through hedgehog-like perseverance. Sometimes, they converge through kismet.
Landing four world-level pentathlon events in Sarasota-Bradenton over the next three years appears to be both. That is, perseverance and kismet for former Congresswoman Katherine Harris and Paul Blackketter, president of the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates, which operates the Nathan Benderson Park rowing center.
Ten years ago, Blakketter rumbled into Baghdad with a platoon of his Army colleagues stationed in Ramadi to meet with headquarters brass. First Lt. Blackketter spotted a rare sight while standing in line in the mess hall: two attractive American women. Lo and behold, one of them turned out to be … Harris, his congresswoman.
A decade later, early this September, Harris was on a mission of her own. She was visiting Randy Benderson, chief executive officer of Benderson Development, to drum up support for bidding on the world pentathlon championships. And who else was there? Blackketter.
The rest, over the past three months, as they say, is history.
Through a combination of Harris’ friendships with senior world pentathlon officials; Blackketter’s military-like information gathering and presentation skills; and the Sarasota-Bradenton community’s increasing success hosting and winning national and world-level amateur sporting events, pentathlon officials announced Tuesday Sarasota-Bradenton will host four world pentathlon events in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
Winning the bid marks another step in a bigger vision and strategy of political, hospitality and business leaders and volunteer residents. They see a big opportunity to turn Sarasota-Bradenton into an acclaimed venue for national and world-class amateur sports.
Says Doug Logan, a Sarasota resident, former CEO of USA Track & Field, former commissioner of Major League Soccer and now an adjunct professor of sports management at New York University: “We’ve got a lot of the right stuff. The strides being made locally to site amateur and professional sports are good.
“The subtle inference here,” Logan adds, “is the community has the vitality and energy to do this. It mitigates the perception that we’re old.”
For Blackketter, the bigger picture is not just hosting prestigious sporting events. It’s about creating sustainable events whose underlying benefit, in the vernacular of the hospitality industry, is “heads in beds” — economic development, visitors spending money here.
“The more events we have, we’re investing in our future,” Blackketter said. “It makes all of this more sustainable.”
Take the pentathlon. It has five events — fencing, pistol shooting, equestrian, swimming and running. When organizers of those sports see that Sarasota-Bradenton hosted those sports via the pentathlon, the region will have had exposure for their sports’ destination lists.
The most crucial ingredient to sustainability, though, Blackketter and Harris said last week, is “total community involvement.”
“A true public, private, community partnership of Sarasota and Bradenton is allowing us to pursue and accept these opportunities,” Blackketter said.
For recent rowing events, for instance, between 300 and 500 volunteers from a database of 2,000-plus volunteers participated. They come from all over: the 27 neighborhoods in the Fruitville 210 Community Alliance; Sarasota Sailing Squadron; Knights of Columbus; and ROTC.
“The (political) leadership in Sarasota-Bradenton, they get it,” Blackketter says. So do the region’s retirees.
Blackketter raves about their enthusiasm for the events and for wanting to bring more to the region.
To be sure, community involvement wasn’t the only factor that sealed the pentathlon events. The pursuit started with Harris when she served as Florida’s secretary of state from 1998 to 2000. A longtime fan of the pentathlon (she competed at a younger age in fencing and shooting), Harris met Olympic Committee members and high-up officials in the pentathlon federation. And she kept those acquaintances over the next dozen years, persistently pitching the area as a potential site.
In early September, while in Europe, Harris said a pentathlon official told her this might be the year for Sarasota-Bradenton to bid for the sport’s world championships. When she returned Sept. 12 to Sarasota, Harris went into high gear. She met with Terry Hansen, president of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, which led to a meeting with Benderson, which led to her reuniting with Blackketter.
Blackketter then pulled together in three days data, demographics and pieces of the presentation used to win the world rowing championships. He pitched the idea to his Suncoast Aquatics board and top officials from Sarasota and Manatee counties and their respective convention and visitors organizations. He and Harris needed $200,000 and a bid completed by Sept. 30.
They did it.
On Tuesday, Dec. 3, it became official. Sarasota-Bradenton won the bid.
For Harris and Blackketter, this was just step one. Next up: raise $1 million from the private sector so they can put on the best pentathlon event ever.
“I commend the counties for working together,” says Logan, who has traveled the world involved in major sporting events. He likes the region’s physical attributes and potential for becoming a top-tier amateur sports destination. Then he poses questions: “Will there be a stepping up from the private and public sides? Do we have the public will?”
Blackketter is convinced: yes to both. When he travels to other communities that have hosted or are vying for sporting events, he compares their attributes to those of Sarasota-Bradenton.
“Not only do we have the facilities,” he says, “we have the perfect size city. We’re not too big, and we’re not too small. We are the perfect community to give these events the attention they need.”
THE PENTATHLON EVENTS
What: Pentathletes achieve performance-related points in each discipline — fencing; 200-meter freestyle swimming; 12-obstacle, show-jumping equestrian contest; 3,000-meter run; and pistol shooting.
• June 2014: World Cup finals, including 36 men and 36 women.
• March 2015: World Championships, including individuals and relay teams from all over the world.
• 2016: World Cup finals and U.S. Olympics trials.