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East County Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017 1 week ago

SANCA head welcomes scrutiny from Florida legislators

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Receipts show previous spending of state monies was approved, checked and reimbursed.
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

It is a saying that became commonplace for Stephen Rodriguez, the president and CEO of Suncoast Aquatics Nature Center Associates, following the 2017 World Rowing Championships.

"The eyes of the world are upon us."

Rodriguez was talking about the impact the event at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota will have in bringing business and tourist dollars from all over the globe to Sarasota and Manatee counties. SANCA, the nonprofit charged with managing the park, was the driving force behind the World Championships.

What Rodriguez might not have expected, though, was the eyes of Florida politicians would be upon SANCA as well.

In October, Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran sent a letter to Rodriguez and Sarasota County Administrator Thomas Harmer asking for all the accounting figures from 2012 to the present for the development of Nathan Benderson Park that involved state monies. Corcoran stated $15 million in state monies has been delivered during that time.

Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert has since suggested rebuilding SANCA to her fellow commissioners to make it more accountable to Sarasota County residents.

Since October, both the county and SANCA replied to Corcoran, and now Rodriguez said he goes about his business as usual.

Rodriguez said $10 million of the money Corcoran wants to check was paid directly to Sarasota County between 2012 and 2016.

"I've seen the story and what's crazy is that it's all accounted for," said former SANCA CEO and President Paul Blackketter, who was in charge of SANCA during those years. "You have to provide a list of what you are going to build to the state, then built it, then get reimbursed after providing documentation and proof that you've built it."

Blackketter said Sarasota Commissioner Charles Hines was accurate in saying SANCA has been totally transparent. "The priority was to build needed infrastructure for the worlds and they did that. The park is a huge success and I'm very proud of what was accomplished. It has exceeded all expectations."

In the last two years, Rodriguez said SANCA has received direct funding for the $2.5 million that was requested April 14, 2016 and was reimbursed by the state this calendar year for improvements to the park. Of the "potential" projects on that list, 16 of the 19 were completed.

Another $2.5 million had been requested and approved this calendar year, but SANCA won't apply for reimbursement until 2018. Accounting for the World Championships will be made to the county and FISA, the international governing body of rowing, by February. Much of the state's $2.5 million that was approved had to do with hosting the World Rowing Championships, for which SANCA had a $9.1 million budget.

"Being in this business and responding to these kinds of requests happens on a regular basis," said Rodriguez, the former vice president of the Florida Sports Foundation who took over as CEO in August. "We have our ducks in a row, so we have nothing to worry about.

Stephen Rodriguez, the CEO and president of SANCA, said all the park's ducks "are in a row."

"This all has been vetted by the state. We were given a contract with parameters to follow. The state had the appropriate safeguards in place. Of the documents we sent (to Corcoran), 90 to 95% were already in the possession of the state of Florida."

Rodriguez said SANCA doesn't just manage events, but the park as well. He said amenities such as the finish tower, and a planned events center which will contain a boat house, will go toward making the park more self sufficient overall.

The Nathan Benderson Community Park Foundation paid for the $6.85 million finish tower and is now fundraising for the events center, which is expected to cost about $10 million. Rodriguez would not speculate on a completion date. The foundation had aimed for 2020 in an estimate earlier this year.

"The events center will be a key component for the park," Rodriguez said. "It will allow us storage of the boats for traveling teams, and more importantly, for our programs to take care of our equipment. It will serve as an events and training center that can host larger events. It is an important part of our master plan."

Rodriguez said the finish tower is being regularly booked already, even though he doesn't have the numbers yet. "We have had a lot of groups, meetings, parties and receptions," he said. "We have had no weddings yet, but we did have a family rent a room in the tower for Thanksgiving dinner. This past week, we hosted the U.S. Rowing Convention for 300 people in the tower."

Meanwhile, the park continues to expand its programs to the general public.

"To different individuals, the park relates to them in a unique manner," Rodriguez said. "The important aspect for us is to take what we do and break it up into different priorities. There is a lot of emphasis developing programs. We are adding an indoor rowing program for the finish tower. You can have quite the view while you are working out."

SANCA hopes to add more land-based programming in 2018, perhaps a running or jogging club for those who work out at the park so often. The park has programs in beginners rowing, master's rowing, two dragon boat clubs, a walking program and yoga among other programs.

The big events will continue in 2018, including the NCAA Women's Divisions 1, 2, and 3 Championships in May and the World Rowing Masters Regatta in September that expects to attract 3,000, many of them internationals.

"I would never sit here and claim SANCA is perfect," he said. "But as far as what the 2017 World Rowing Championships has done for us, I believe you will see that we now truly are on the international scene. We know the Florida economy is based on tourism and it's going to matter. We are bringing in more visitors and they are spending at businesses, eating at restaurants and staying at hotels. They are contributing to the bed tax, and to the sales tax. The investment into economic development and tourism is measurable."

Now he waits as SANCA is scrutinized.

"We have sent all the information," he said. "We know the materials were received. We have not received a response."

County administrators also might have a new direction in September of 2018 when the county's contract with SANCA expires.

"We exist as stewards of Sarasota County," Rodriguez said. "We're servants of the county."

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