SANCA, foundation officials say boathouse construction was never promised.
With the 2017 World Rowing Championships over, officials representing Nathan Benderson Park hope to turn the public’s attention to the park itself, and its future.
Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates, the organization running day-to-day operations at the park, and the Nathan Benderson Park Foundation, the group tasked with fundraising for future improvements, are focused on expanding opportunities for public use.
“An important part of this is that it's owned by the community,” Foundation board member Rick Piccolo said. “I think sometimes that gets lost in the stories. It’s really a park first. It’s a rowing facility second.”
Whatever the park might be, the feeling has been that it needs a boathouse/events center as shown in the park’s longterm master plan.
Currently, two designs exist. The first is a one-level building with boat storage, locker rooms and a fitness facility. The other would add a second level to serve as a banquet hall for hosting weddings, community events and park programming.
Without a chosen design, park officials say its too early to say what the new facility will cost. Estimates for the two-story facility have previously been around $10 million.
Piccolo and Joe Barbetta, also a foundation board member, said they hope the boathouse could be constructed within two years, but it would be contingent on funding and on whether SANCA and Sarasota County, which owns the 600-acre public park, want to pursue funding.
Barbetta said the foundation has raised $5 million in private funds toward the boathouse, but those donations will only offered if SANCA and the county can find matching dollars, such as grants. If those matching dollars are secured, there would be $10 million available for the project.
Piccolo said the foundation remains committed to completing the boathouse.
“I hope to have it in place and operating within the next two years," he said. "A lot of that is dependent on how successful the fundraising efforts are.”
In October 2017, Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran questioned whether Sarasota County and SANCA had correctly utilized $15 million in state monies received since 2012 for improvements at Nathan Benderson Park, including for the dredging of the lake and a wave attenuator, among other items.
Officials from both organizations said all money has been accounted for and used per state requirements, but the inquiry set off a debate about the park, and in particular, the fact a boathouse has not yet been constructed.
SANCA and county officials have said the boathouse is part of an overall conceptual design for Nathan Benderson Park and was never a must to host the 2017 World Rowing Championships, nor for the park as a whole.
“There are no documents anywhere that say a boathouse was promised (for the championships),” Barbetta said. “That was always conceptualization. If we would have come into a windfall, we would have built it.
“The naysayers out there really need to think about what they are saying,” he said, noting public dollars often go toward private venues, such as training facilities for the Atlanta Braves and the Baltimore Orioles.
Stephen Rodriguez, president and CEO of SANCA, agreed his organization had not promised the boathouse would be complete in time for the International Rowing Federation’s (FISA) World Rowing Championships and that FISA officials were pleased with the event at the park and the facilities.
“If you ask if any state monies were appropriated for the boathouse, the answer is no,” he said.
Local businessman Mike Bennett, a former state senator and currently Manatee County's supervisor of elections, has spoken to legislators about securing funds for park projects in the past and said he always presented the park master plan as conceptual.
"I don't believe I, at any time, or anybody else promised a specific thing was going to be built first," he said. "We would not make any promises."
Sarasota County had two contracts with the state in 2012 and 2013, before the announcement of the championships, for dredging, creation of the island, wave attenuators and other features. SANCA in 2016 received $2.5 million from the state’s Department of Economic Opportunities for championship-related needs such as lighting, platforms and other specific items. It has not yet submitted documents to be reimbursed for another $2.5 million approved in 2017 for temporary structures related to the championships.
“People don’t realize when the state appropriates money, they don’t just hand you a check,” Rodriquez said. “They are all reimbursements.”
Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert called Corcoran’s inquiry a “political ploy” and said the county has given its formal response defending its use of the money. That said, she still has her own concerns about finances as the county tries to shave costs from its budget.
“The county is experiencing budget problems. We’re looking at every penny,” she said. “Any kind of boathouse is not a top priority for 2018 certainly, or 2019. (Nathan Benderson Park) takes a bigger part of our parks and recreation budget than (other parks). When times are great, it’s the fun icing on the cake, but right now we’re looking at cutting grass and the basics. There’s no time for extra frills.”
Sarasota County in December did spend $7.9 million to purchase 2.7 miles of land for the extension of its Legacy Trail.
Rodriguez said the master plan for Nathan Benderson Park has evolved over time. Projects for the future include a dog park, an amphitheater, the boathouse and grandstands.
The grandstands likely never will be constructed because the space has proven more flexible without them and can hold a larger variety of events, he said.
“The master plan was drawn up back before SANCA was even in existence,” Rodriguez said. “Now for the last four years we’ve been utilizing the park and seeing how it works for events and the people in it.”
Rodriguez said SANCA has a vision to construct the boathouse but there’s no timeline for building it yet. He’d love for it to be finished within two years, as foundation members hope. It would provide boat storage and training facilities and could host community programs.
“Certainly any amenities that get added to the park over the next couple of years expand the level of service we can provide here at the park," he said. "Anything we add to the park adds value to the community."
Over the last fiscal year, the park hosted 45 events. It also hosted 51 teams for various training exercises. In total, that was nearly 118,000 visitors to the park, in addition to the general public who use it daily for walking, biking, running and other programs. On Jan. 6, it hosted a free movie in the park, an event which typically draws about 800 people.
Piccolo said he met many Sarasota residents at the World Championships who said they didn’t realize all the amenities the park had to offer.
“The efforts we’re making as a foundation is to make it the best park in the world,” Piccolo said. “I really believe in the decades to come this will be the central park for Sarasota-Manatee, like Central Park in New York City. It’s really something that will be a legacy for decades to come.”