For the last three years, Paul Blackketter has been feeding a monster that just keeps getting bigger.
And soon, it will be let loose on the Sarasota/Manatee area.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity,” Blackketter says. “This is a chance to bring a world-class rowing (venue here). If we do it right, this course could be the course for the United States.”
If all goes as planned, Sarasota County could have it ready for competition by the fall of this year, although amenities such as boathouses may be added over time.
Staying the course
Blackketter, a project manager for Benderson Development, remembers sitting in a meeting with his employer, Randy Benderson, about four years ago. As part of his proposed University Town Center mega mall project, Benderson was required to extend Cattlemen Road northward to University Parkway. But Randy Benderson’s vision was bigger: What about reconfiguring a lake just south of University Parkway to make it long enough to accommodate a 2,000-meter rowing course?
The effort would cost the company a significant amount of money — about $1 million, according to Blackketter — but every person at that meeting voted to make it happen.
“It was a risk,” Blackketter says. “It was the right thing to do. That was a pivotal point.”
Since then, Blackketter has been tasked with learning everything he can about rowing and the venues designed for it.
He’s traveled to races such as the Henley Royal Regatta in Europe and dozens of venues in the United States with the intention of finding the best way to design the course and facilities in the East County.
But the vision, he says, has not wavered. Local sculling groups, Benderson, Sarasota County officials and others have remained dedicated to the idea and passionate about the sport, which was introduced to the area by Peter de Manio.
“There’s a lot of people who have been involved in this project,” Blackketter says. “Without people seeing (that vision for the rowing site), this would have been a lost lake to this day.
“It’s been magical,” he says of building the rowing facility and course. “How the stars have aligned to make this happen is unbelievable.”
Building the course
Sarasota County’s initial efforts at Nathan Benderson Park will focus on the rowing facilities — the actual water course, stands for races and other related items.
Blackketter has been working with rowing experts and coaches as well as FISA, the international rowing federation, to determine what design and facilities will make the rowing course and accompanying facilities at the park the most sought after in the world.
“Our objective is to design this thing right the first time,” Blackketter says.
Although the course’s design is geared toward rowing competitions, the use doesn’t have to stop there, Blackketter says.
The county also will be able to offer outreach programs for youths, adaptive rowing for handicapped individuals and even corporate rowing, which is used for team building, in addition to its more competitive use.
“Rowing just opens doors,” Blackketter says.
The course itself may even be able to be used for kayak and canoeing races, which also are growing in popularity.
Those types of uses are all part of the program Blackketter is working to develop for the rowing facility and remainder of Nathan Benderson Park, which also will include amenities such as running trails, picnic areas and other features to serve the public.
Once the program for the park has been established — probably by sometime in March — Blackketter says he’ll hand his monster over to a professional marketing team to share the vision with rowers on a national and international level.
To complement the park facilities, Blackketter says he’s even contemplating whether the Manatee River could accommodate longer “head” races. Adding that to the mix would make the Sarasota/Manatee area even more of a destination for those in the rowing world, he says.
The course ahead
Construction of Cattlemen Road is expected to start in the first quarter of 2010 and last about 18 months. Sarasota County officials, however, are enthusiastic about the rowing facility project and are sensitive to regattas already planned at Nathan Benderson Park for April and May.
Although the 2,000-meter course is expected to be finished in time for the upcoming sprint race season, the extension of Cattlemen Road and other park facilities will still be under construction. Sarasota County likely will add components of the park as funding becomes available.
“The master plan is put in as the site develops,” Blackketter says.
While the park itself will be a great resource for East County residents, officials also are hoping the venture will stimulate the economy.
Jason Puckett, sports manager for the Sarasota Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, says the two regattas held at the park last spring had an economic impact of more than $2.3 million. Hosting more regattas could up that number to more than $5 million annually, he says.
Key players at Benderson Development are hoping those numbers are right.
The company has held off on the construction of its mega mall project called University Town Center since the economy tanked. But Blackketter says Benderson is hoping the regattas will draw enough people to spur development of the remainder of the project, which now will be built in phases rather than all at one time.
Blackketter also says once a program for the park is established and development is turned over to the county, a foundation likely would be formed to help govern events held at the rowing facility. Benderson, he says, hopes to be a part of that organization.
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].