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East County Thursday, May 20, 2021 1 year ago

Just Keep Rowing

Nearly one year into the job, SANCA CEO Tomás Herrera-Mishler shares what he’s learned and what changes are coming to Nathan Benderson Park.
by: Brendan Lavell Staff Writer

Imagine moving across the country to take the helm of a nonprofit — in the midst of a pandemic. That’s exactly what Tomás Herrera-Mishler did when he became the president and CEO of Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates, the nonprofit that manages Nathan Benderson Park, on Aug. 3, 2020.

Prior to the that, Herrera-Mishler had recently resigned after five years leading the Balboa Park Conservancy, an organization that includes the San Diego Zoo, 17 museums and 20 public gardens. But the Mexico native is no stranger to Florida — his first job after graduating from the University of Michigan was as a landscape architect in Coral Gables. He is also familiar with the area, having worked on master plans for the Ringling Museum and Sarasota’s Civic Center during that time.

When he arrived, he said his first task was to collect information from the community about what it wants from the park. Nine months later, we spoke with him to hear what he has learned, what he is most excited about and what his biggest challenge will be.

What have you learned about this community since you moved here?

One is the extraordinary access to nature that we enjoy. I can go out to Myakka River State Park and be surrounded by so much literally untouched, original Florida landscape.

Most importantly, I’ve found love and kindness. It’s unusual for people to come from all over the country and beyond and embrace a place as much as people embrace Sarasota. There’s something about this place that makes it feel like home faster than other places I’ve lived. Maybe it’s because for so long people have been coming from other places to settle here, and we’re all eager to connect with each other. Even in the midst of the pandemic, I found people really open, willing, even eager to make that connection with me.


What have you learned about Nathan Benderson Park?

Particularly in the context of the pandemic, this has become everybody’s park. When you come to the park, any day, anytime, it’s packed with people who are running, biking, jogging, strolling, pushing a stroller, skating, you name it. People are using this park to get fit, to get some fresh air, to be outside with friends.

The park itself is unfinished, and there’s so much potential for the future. I did not know that Mote was going to build their aquarium here. This state-of-the-art, 500,000-gallon aquarium is going to become one of our great resources in our region. Not just tourism, which is great, but I think it’s this opportunity for our region to connect to the ocean in a very special and intimate way that’s not readily available right now. Not all of us can throw on scuba gear and jump in the ocean and see these creatures, and yet it’s such a vital part of our community.


How has your first almost-year on the job been?

It’s been really exciting. A silver lining to our COVID cloud has been meeting the needs of our performing arts community by providing them with a venue that is so adaptable to hosting their performances. I think entertainment, music and the arts is going to be a very important service we provide to our community. For example, the Barancik Foundation gave us a grant to host Embracing Our Differences. In May, you’re going to see 50 canvases going up in the park, and the visual impact of these enormous canvases is really something. But the messaging of diversity itself, celebrating diversity and differences, I think it’s a powerful message these days.


What has been your biggest victory so far as CEO?

Figuring out how to really partner with both Manatee County and Sarasota County. If you put on your future lenses and think about what Sarasota and Bradenton are going to look like in 10 years, more and more, this is going to become the Central Park of our region: very centrally located, very accessible to everyone. It’s really important to keep in mind as we develop this park, what are the needs of future generations? If we can’t predict those needs, let’s be sure we leave a little flexibility, and let’s preserve as much open space as we can.


What is the biggest challenge you’ll have to tackle in the coming years?

SANCA before I was hired was just an operating organization and not charged with fundraising. The organization needs to develop a fundraising strategy. We need to hire fundraising staff. And we need to, most importantly, create relationships that are meaningful with donors.

I’m excited about it. I love connecting people with people who have a passion for what we’re doing, people who want to help us connect with underserved communities, people that want to help us expand our educational programming, expand our arts and culture programming, improve the landscape, create gardens and restore native landscapes. I’ve spent most of my life taking care of masterpieces of landscape architecture that were designed 100 years ago or more.

This is an opportunity for me to work with people, donors, the board and their partners at the counties to create a legacy for the future. Maybe in 100 years, someone will look back at what we did with admiration.


What do you see coming up that people should be excited about?

In October, we’re going to have the club crew races competition for dragon boats. It is so exciting and fun. You’ve got 20 people paddling like mad across this lake. Look for things like improvements to the playground. It’s going to be more fun and bigger. Look for a lot more trees and plants. I’m hoping to partner with people who are crazy about native plants and create a native plant block. We’ve got lots of fun stuff on the horizon because it’s, in a way, a blank canvas.

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