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East County Wednesday, May 30, 2018 6 months ago

Another improvement comes to Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota

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Nathan Benderson Park continues to add amenities, which includes building a canopy over its playground.
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

In terms of rowing, Nathan Benderson Park seems to have no ceiling when it comes to the world class events it can book in the future.

For the park's playground, though, the lack of a ceiling has meant no shade.

"It is so hot," said 8-year-old Zalan Guilbert as he looked over at his mom, Sarasota's Agnes Guilbert. He then turned, returned to the equipment, and climbed up a rope structure.

As Zalan Guilbert played, behind him the NCAA Women's Rowing National Championships was taking place on the lake. Eight months removed from hosting the World Championships, Nathan Benderson Park continues to book high-profile events.

Even so, Stephen Rodriguez, the president and CEO of Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates, said his group's commitment to the residents is to provide a total park.

In that vein, SANCA is putting $125,000 toward a mesh roof that will cover the entire Ronald A. Balducci Playground.

"It makes me feel happy to hear that," said Sarasota's Amanda Bontrage, whose son, Will, was playing as a few sprinkles fell. "You drive by here, and it looks miserable. We come here when we know it will be overcast."

Agnes Guilbert said the shade structure will increase her family's use of the playground, and the park.

"We do love this park," Guilbert said. "The heat is one of the reasons we don't come too often."

Guilbert said she has been impressed with SANCA and the programs that have been added to the park.

"I can't wait to see what comes next," she said.

Sarasota's Kerry Walsh, whose 7-year-old daughter, Madelyn, was climbing on the playground structure, said the addition of the shade structure was a matter of safety.

"This equipment gets hot," he said. "And skin cancer is so prevalent here. We need to be protecting our children."

Rodriguez said the shade structure, which will be 25 feet high at its highest point with 14-foot poles around the perimeter, is going through the final stages of permitting and he hopes it will be finished by July 3, in time for the park's Fireworks on the Lake event. The fireworks program made its debut last year.

Although hosting the World Rowing Championships had an impact in the rowing community, Rodriguez said general use, such as the hiking trails and the water sports programs, has increased since the event due to greater visibility. "The longer we are here, and the more programs we offer, the more people will utilize the park," he said. "I do believe a large segment of local residents still believe we are just a rowing facility."

Among the programs offered by the park are indoor rowing fitness, Chiwalking, remote control sailboats, rowing lessons, dragon boat paddling and rentals for standup paddleboards, kayaks and single sculls. The park's Summer Aquatics Camp begins June 4 with full day and half day sessions (information at nathanbendersonpark.org).

One of the next improvements will be the construction of various shade structures on the eastern side of the park for those who use the trails. Rodriguez said plans are in the conceptual stage so he has no details. He said it was an obvious need.

He also said fundraising efforts to build a new boathouse and events center are ramping up. Estimates for a two-story facility that would host boat storage, locker rooms, a fitness facility and a banquet hall have been approximately $10 million. Rodriguez said the Nathan Benderson Park Foundation is offering a $5 million matching grant for any money raised by the county or SANCA.

Bates College won the NCAA Women's Rowing Varsity 8 Division III national championship May 26 in another high profile event at Nathan Benderson Park.

Rodriguez was asked if the park will build an amphitheater.

"That is part of the master plan, but the priority now is on fundraising for the boathouse/events center," he said. "Once that is done, we will reevaluate."

He did say the idea of a floating stage in the lake as part of an amphitheater would be an attractive addition.

Meanwhile, the rowing portion the park is thriving.

"Certainly, there has been a clarity about what hosting the World Rowing has meant to the park," Rodriguez said. "It solidified us as a truly world class facility. We have a lot of good opportunities coming up. We currently are negotiating for the Under 23 World Rowing Championships in July of 2019. You would see current Olympians and the elite rowers of the world. We are also looking at the World Masters in September of 2018."

The World Masters is intriguing to Rodriguez, who works with Visit Sarasota to evaluate economic impact of each event.

He said events can be valued in different ways, but the World Masters would provide measurable dollars to the local economy. Masters rowers are 27 and over and Rodriguez said they tend to be business professionals who have the income to travel.

"The vibe is different," Rodriquez said. "They are interested in competing, but also in having a good time."

SANCA also is bidding on the Youth National Championships, which would be awarded for a three-year run beginning in 2019. The event draws more than 2,000 competitors.

A return of another World Championship, however, is not likely in the near future. Rodriguez said it was a large undertaking and a big investment.

"And we needed so many volunteers," he said. "We don't want to burn out the community."

More than 50 events will be held at Nathan Benderson Park in 2018 and Rodriguez said his weekend schedule is pretty much full.

Rodriguez was asked if he had joined Mote Marine in meetings with Sarasota County to talk about acquiring the 5-acre parcel needed to build a $130 million aquarium within Nathan Benderson Park. The project was announced Feb. 8.

He has been aware of no meetings to this point even though Mote announced it hopes to break ground in 2019.

"We are going to have a cool aquarium," he said. "That will bring us significant entertainment value for those attending events here. When the time comes, we will work closely with Mote to plan parking and traffic."

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