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East County Friday, Mar. 18, 2022 3 months ago

Rebuilt board is making waves at Benderson Park in Sarasota

Now named the Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy, the Sarasota nonprofit's board hopes to enact changes.
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

When Michael Taaffe, a partner with Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, took over as the new chair of the Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy in September, his rebuilding of the board could best be termed as "aggressive."

In his two previous years on the board of the former Suncoast Aquatics Nature Center Associates, a nonprofit that ran the park for Sarasota County, Taaffe said not much was getting done.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic could be partially to blame, Taaffe said the board had little diversity and he was going to change that fact quickly.

The Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy announced its name change March 7, along with its five new board appointments (two-year terms).

While the finish tower was built at Nathan Benderson Park, the long-planned boathouse/events center has floundered.

"I looked at the board like I was managing a small company," Taaffe said. "I wanted to recruit people who have knowledge of our products."

Taaffe was a founding member of Sarasota Crew and has coached the sport as well. His four kids all were national team rowers.

He was asked a few years ago if he wanted to be the chair, but he didn't want to miss his kids' races. With his kids graduating from college, he now has the time.

One of his first moves was making sure Curtis Jordan, the former Princeton rowing coach, would remain on the board. He did and is the chair-elect.

He then started thinking aboard board members who weren't associated with rowing.

"If you look at the park, we have a lot of people who are doing a lot of biking," Taaffe said. "So we got Louis Kosiba."

Kosiba is a retired business executive and president of Friends of The Legacy Trail.

Taaffe noted the Legacy Trail will have a spur that connects with the park.

He then sought a member of the running community and he recruited Molly Jackson, who owns New Balance Sarasota and University Park, Molly's Boutique and Fleet Feet Sarasota.

He said the board's average age when he took over as chair was approximately 70, so he convinced Jay Riley of USF to join the board. Riley, who is USF's senior director of corporate partnerships and external affairs, is in his 40s. Taaffe said Riley wants to establish college rowing programs at the park.

"Manatee County and Lakewood Ranch are such big draws for us, so we wanted to get someone from that area. We got Linda de Mello (an organizational consultant)."

Former Sarasota County Commissioner Carolyn Mason was a member of the SANCA board but quit, according to Taaffe, because the board wasn't doing enough to attract minorities to the park and its programs. She has agreed to return to the board.

"We had one female on the board, and now we have four and five males," Taaffe said. "We have changed the balance of gender, age and backgrounds. I wanted to shake it up."

Among the improvement planned at Nathan Benderson Park are longer running and walking paths.

Besides Jordan, other returning board members are Sarasota County Commissioner Ron Cutsinger and Joanne Fava, a sports medicine specialist.

The Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy will continue to contract with Sarasota County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources. The park is 600 acres and hosts North America's premier 2,000-meter rowing course.

“The new name will further unify the park and its operator,” said Stephen Rodriguez, the Conservancy’s interim president and CEO/chief operating officer in a release. “It will also further strengthen and reinforce the Nathan Benderson Park brand within the community and national and international markets."

Taaffe already has established some ambitious goals for the park. He said he wants to break ground on the planned boathouse/events center in two years. That project has floundered for years, but Taaffe said it is critical to the park. Although he said he couldn't release information about the project until it is cleared through Sarasota County, he said they hope is that it includes an events center that can host indoor basketball and volleyball tournaments. He said such a building would generate funds for the park. A feasibility study is being conducted.

The previous estimate for a boathouse/events center was $10 million, but Taaffe said the new project would be dramatically higher. He said approximately $7 million is committed to the program at this time.

"We are going to get that done," he said. "It should have been done long ago."

Other immediate projects include a lengthened cinder trail and an outside pavilion area that could host exercise programs. A bigger playground area, which would be designed for small children to middle school-aged children, is being considered.

He said once Sarasota County completes the "flyover," which will be a bridge over Interstate 75 that will connect the Waterside of Lakewood Ranch and UTC areas, the park can begin hosting marathon events and full triathlons.

"We could to the Celery Fields and back to the park," he said.

The Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy also is seeking a CEO and the interview process will include acting-CEO Stephen Rodriguez. 

"We want to be dynamic," Taaffe said.

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