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Paul Blackketter, a project manager for Benderson Development, says he is on "executive loan" from his company.
East County Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014 3 years ago

Rowing park peddles plan

by: Josh Siegel Staff Writer

EAST COUNTY — When a group of rowing enthusiasts and community advocates travels the globe to ask for donations to sustain Nathan Benderson Park, the plea will be backed by a business plan.

The plan will show revenue projections and an architectural rendering of a boathouse that can host weddings, with details such as the number of guests the bride and groom can invite and how many boats the shelter can store. By the time representatives from Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates (SANCA) make their pitch, they hope donors won’t be able to say no.

“To raise $22 million, the business plan that supports ‘the ask’ should cover every inch,” Paul Blackketter, president of SANCA, said motioning at a colorful, glossy packet. “It should be: ‘Here’s what we have here,’ and it blows them away. It has to be so well thought out, where everything has a good use so that you can turn it 10 different ways. Everything has a plan. And you can’t compromise that.”

Sarasota County Commissioners approved a preliminary version of the plan Jan. 28, and with it, gave SANCA the authority to operate and maintain the park beginning April 1.

Manatee County commissioners will have the chance to approve the plan soon, with a vote hopefully held by mid-April, Blackketter said.

The plan, which calls for construction crews to build a boathouse, grandstands and a finish tower — an expansion to facilities that requires SANCA to raise $22 million before hosting the 2017 World Rowing Championships — acts as a lens into how local officials will race to finish the transformation of Nathan Benderson Park from a small lake to an international venue.

Although athletes from sports such as stand-up paddle boarding, dragon boating and rowing clamor to use the park’s 2,000-meter sprint course, a muddy tour around the park revealed a visual of a plan being executed every day, with significant challenges remaining.

Until the nonprofit can sustain itself, SANCA operates out of a trailer, donated by Benderson Development, at the park.

From there, SANCA receives inquiries from event holders who want to run their events here — before 2017.

Nathan Benderson Park has 27 events confirmed for 2014 already.

SANCA cannot authorize construction on infrastructure required to complete the park and host Olympic-level events until one year from when the park’s 30-acre regatta island “is settled,” in May.

Dirt removed from the lake — an estimated minimum of 250,000 cubic yards of material, in total — created the regatta island on which the finish tower and boathouse will be located.

SANCA is currently designing the boathouse — a likely 60,000-square-foot, two-story structure that will hold 300 to 400 shells (rowing boats) and also operate like a convention center.

The finish tower, the “traffic control center” that will house media and judges for regattas, also is being designed.

Blackketter expects architectural design and drawings to be finished by late spring or early summer.
With renderings in hand, SANCA and its newly designed foundation board, a group led by Randy Benderson, president of Benderson Development, can begin to fundraise.

Blackketter says the entire $22 million will not have to come in all at once for construction to begin.

Although Blackketter acknowledges the difficulty in predicting a fundraising timeline, a fact about which Sarasota commissioners expressed understanding, but concern, he predicts suitors will be plenty.

“We don’t have to stay local when we fundraise because it’s an international venue,” Blackketter said. “We’re not competing with anything like it in North America.”

But in the coming months, before it rallies outside support, SANCA has to gain approval locally.

Support for SANCA’s business plan from the counties is a formality, for Sarasota and Manatee collectively have already put $5.6 million — through tourism bed-tax dollars — toward hosting the rowing championships.

To help fund park improvements, the state has provided a $5 million grant that comes with a clawback provision, meaning the state can recoup the money if economic impact promises are not met.

The project is expected to generate a $25 million economic return from the 2017 championships.

But, just to “keep the lights on,” SANCA currently is negotiating an additional financial commitment from Sarasota County and hopes to get a similar contribution from Manatee.

“I know this will be successful,” said Sarasota Commissioner Joe Barbetta when he voted to approve SANCA’s business plan. “And I have faith in (SANCA’s) ability to transfer a vision into financial viability. I just don’t think we need to wait (to raise money).”

For Blackketter, the finish can’t come soon enough — within reality.

“I can say with confidence SANCA has the manpower, incentive and right people to fundraise and construct the improvements as fast as we possibly can,” Blackketter said. “Right now, we’re building the bridge to world class, and we appreciate the investment of the community to help us get there. Once we’re there, in 2018, the venue (becomes self sufficient).”

Inside SANCA:
Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates, SANCA, is a nonprofit headed by Paul Blackketter created to run Nathan Benderson Park.

SANCA’s business plan calls for the nonprofit to have a six-person, full-time operations staff, including Blackketter and a to-be-hired marketing director.

The nonprofit also has an operational board, which will grow from six to 10 people in three months, to oversee finances; and a foundation, led by Randy Benderson, president of Benderson Development, that has the “sole purpose in life of raising money,” Blackketter said.

Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].


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