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East County Wednesday, Jul. 15, 2009 8 years ago

England's Henley inspires East County rowing facility

by: Pam McTeer

SARASOTA COUNTY — Until two weeks ago, Paul Blackketter thought rowing was just a boat race.
Now, he knows it can be much more than that.

The project manager for Benderson Development has been all over the country looking at rowing facilities and watching races, but nothing has been quite like the Henley Royal Regatta in England, which he attended July 1 with his wife, Rhonda, and two daughters, Chloe and Madison.

“The Henley is more about the Henley than rowing, in a way,” Blackketter said. “It’s more about the celebration. There’s so much going on.”

Along the banks of the river Thames, members of the public spread out their blankets to watch the races while enjoying a picnic of wine, cheese and crackers. Vendors set up nearby offering hamburgers, drinks and other food as well as live entertainment and other activities.

In special VIP-type areas, attendees take a pause from the festivities only when they hear over the intercom that their team is about to race.

“(At the Henley), there’s more things going on and things to do than the race itself,” Blackketter said. “It was basically like a carnival.”

The sheer size of the international rowing event was enough to raise Blackketter’s eyebrows. But he said he now is confident that one day the lake at Nathan Benderson Park, located just south of the Super Target on University Parkway, could accommodate such an event.

“We can have a similar regatta that resembles life in Sarasota, where you can have all these enclosures with vendors camping out and maybe you dress up, maybe you don’t,” Blackketter said. “I think Sarasota and this area could support something of this magnitude and create a great tradition of rowing at Nathan Benderson Park.”

The site already has hosted a few regattas and already is booked for three more next year, Blackketter said.

According to an economic impact study conducted by the Sarasota Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, the Florida Scholastic Rowing Association’s state championship at the site a few months ago generated more than $1.76 million and drew more than 14,000 people, bureau Sports Manager Jason Puckett said.
Blackketter said the numbers only get more promising.

Starting in about four months, Benderson will begin extending Cattlemen Road, a project that eventually will change the shape of the existing lake at Nathan Benderson Park and make it long enough to hold 2,000-meter rowing races for collegiate and international competitions.

Although Benderson will not be the entity organizing regattas, it does have a vested interest in seeing the park succeed. The company hopes tourism generated from events there will spur a need for it to develop University Town Center, the mega mall project it put on hold in December.

Currently, Benderson is working on the park’s site plan and establishing how the property can sustain itself.

Blackketter also said he is working on developing a regatta committee comprising rowing coaches, county officials and other professionals who would oversee regattas at the facility, which would be owned and operated by Sarasota County.

Read about Benderson's retail projects here.

Contact Pam McTeer at [email protected].

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