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East County Wednesday, Jun. 3, 2020 2 months ago

SANCA executive hits finish line after enriching Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota

Bob Whitford spent a decade developing a multi-use park that features North America's top rowing facility.
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

Bob Whitford stood on the fourth floor of Nathan Benderson Park's 90-foot tall finish tower, looking at the west bank of his personal Rose Bowl as he talked about his decade of service to the park.

It was in 2010 when Benderson Development's Shaun Benderson and Paul Blackketter flew to Sacramento, Calif., in an attempt to convince Whitford to guide the construction of Nathan Benderson Park and to design and build a world class rowing facility.

Whitford had combined with his Sauer Racing partners to build the Olympic rowing venues at California's Lake Casitas (1984 Los Angeles) and Georgia's Lake Lanier (1996 Atlanta). While proud of his work at both facilities, he said they had some natural flaws that couldn't be overcome.

Benderson and Blackketter didn't have to work hard to convince Whitford to accompany them back to Sarasota. He arrived in February, 2011 as the park's manager for Sarasota County. He saw the 600-acre park as the perfect setting to chase his goal.

"I left California because of the opportunity to create rowing's Rose Bowl," he said.

Now, as he prepares for his final day at Nathan Benderson Park on June 12, Whitford knows he has accomplished his task and is leaving behind one of the top rowing facilities in the world, along with a park that serves its community in myriad ways. The last major piece to complete his project is a $10 million boathouse that is going through the fundraising stage, but he couldn't wait for that to be accomplished.

Whitford has maintained a long-distance relationship with his wife, Lee Ann, for more than five years as she has wanted to live in California. Whitford accepted a job as Sacramento State's facilities director and will begin work June 19. His work will involve a 3 1/2-acre site inside a state park.

Why now?

"I like being married," he said with a smile.

Stephen Rodriguez, the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates' CEO and president, has been leading the nonprofit that runs Nathan Benderson Park for three years, but he met Whitford a few years earlier when he brought an event to the park. Rodriguez had a meeting scheduled with Whitford to discuss logistics.

When he drove up to the park, he saw Whitford out by his vehicle, changing out of "scrubs" to a shirt and tie for the meeting. Whitford is a hands-on leader who never has minded getting his hands dirty.

"It's like the park is his home," Rodriguez said. "With the amount of hours he dedicates to the park, it's like he lives here."

Rodriguez said Whitford has had a huge role in the park's success and what its facilities have become. He said no one knows more about the park than Whitford.

Bob Whitford said the finish tower at Nathan Benderson Park is known all over the world in the rowing community.

"If you ever want to know anything about the park and why things got designed in a certain way, Bob Whitford knows," Rodriguez said. "Nobody knows more than Bob about the water aspect of aquatic sports. You can't go to any rowing event in the world where somebody doesn't know him. He is one of the best course management guys in the world. They listened to Bob about the layout and technical aspects of this park. If you ask him why there is a berm in a certain place, he will have instant recall."

Whitford saw the potential of the site, but something else intrigued him.

"From an administrative standpoint, we had a magnificent advantage," he said. "We were working with Sarasota County (which purchased the park in 1995 from APAC-Florida Incorporated for $2.2 million). When you go to other venues, you have homeowners, the Army Corps of Engineers, water districts. Here, everything was within the county."

He said with the "magnificent" leadership of Blackketter and the support of the Benderson family, the county and the taxpayers, Whitford said the park, which had naming rights purchased for $1 million by Benderson Development and presented to Nathan Benderson as a 90th birthday present, systematically dealt with every problem that came its way.

"Without Bob's guidance and devotion, the park would not be the world class facility it is today," Randy Benderson said. "The leaders of FISA had the highest compliments for Bob when Sarasota/Bradenton hosted the World Championships, the World Masters and the World Under 21 Championships at Nathan Benderson Park. We all can't thank Bob enough for everything he has accomplished. We will truly miss him and hope he will stay involved in future major events at the park."

Whitford said an enhancement order to develop the park (before he arrived on scene) was key and led to the pursuit of building a world class rowing facility.

After arriving, it didn't take long for him to find some changes that needed to be made.

"The original Cattlemen Road came right under where we are sitting," he said from the finish tower. "They had to shift it to the north."

The course when Whitford arrived was 1,800 meters and had to be expanded to 2,000 meters to host world class events. He also wanted to incorporate a "return canal" as many facilities require the rowers to return back down the course. Whitford wanted the boats to finish and take a different course back to the dock.

The original plan was to build along the west bank of the park, which would have been close to neighborhood homes. Building a return canal was an expensive proposition which led to two bridges and creating an island. More than 250,000 cubic yards of material dredged from the lake were used to create a 30-acre regatta island. The base of the operation moved away from the west bank.

"These were exciting times," he said. "We were holding charrettes to discuss everything."

He had other problems to overcome. The course he designed for Lake Casitas was a round body of water and didn't create the best flow for the rowers. Lake Lanier was "100 miles long" and the water elevation wasn't controlled by the course.

"You had bass fishing events come through the course," he said.

Whitford, 64, said the Nathan Benderson Park lake was too wide and too open, so they had to design a wave break. In came a floating wave attenuator that he called revolutionary. It quelled the water and create near perfect conditions.

"I am crazy about this place," he said. "We did the things that were necessary. No one was saying, 'No.' Just how could they get it done."

While the rowing course was being perfected, Whitford joined other park administrators to build a facility that attracted world championship triathlons and national modern pentathlons. The diversity of the park became apparent.

'We've got remote control sailboats and we have been called one of the best host sites in the country," he said. "We are a true multipurpose facility."

The finish tower, which was completed in 2017 before the park hosted the World Rowing Championships, was another benchmark.

"This is an iconic finish tower in which you can put 100 people on each of the floors," he said. "It is recognizable throughout the world of rowing. The finish tower is the brain of our operation. We need the heart, which will be the boathouse. We're in Florida and you need to put things inside. Plus you will have the locker rooms, the weight rooms and the training rooms. Plus there will be a rowing history museum. The boathouse will complete the functionality."

Rodriguez said he expects to bring Whitford back at times as a consultant.

"I think I can contribute," Whitford said. "But the important thing is to get the right person who is as passionate as I am for the park."

Rodriguez doesn't know if that is possible. He plans to create two positions to fill Whitford's job.

While Whitford loved the park hosting the World Rowing Championships, he said one of his best moments was in 2014 when the park hosted a national breast cancer dragon boat event. At the end of competition, testimonials were given during a flower ceremony.

"It got me," he said. "It gave me goosebumps."

His emotions are running a bit high now as his time at Nathan Benderson Park comes to an end.

"All the pieces have come together," he said "This will be a $60 million project when all is said and done."

He looked out of the finish tower, again at the western bank. While the park hosted the World Rowing Championships with all the fans being crowded on the banks by the finish tower, the western bank most was occupied by coaches who rode their bikes along the course to watch their athletes.

"My dream would be that someday they have that whole west bank lined with people," he said.

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