Sarasota County applies pressure for operator to lessen park's dependance on tourism dollars.
Nathan Benderson Park has hosted world-class events such as the 2017 World Rowing Championships and 2017 USRowing Youth Nationals, as well as food and beer festivals, triathlons, 5K runs and fundraisers.
The park, and its operator Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates, generate revenue from parking, events and sponsorships.
But does that revenue cover the park’s expenses?
Right now, the answer is no.
Heading into the 2019 fiscal year, Sarasota County is being asked to fund about half the park’s operating budget of $2.2 million per year through tourist-tax dollars. But county officials and Stephen Rodriguez, SANCA’s CEO, will spend the next year assessing operations and working to bring in more revenue, following a June 20 county budget discussion.
A 2014 business plan for the park projected it would become profitable by fiscal year 2017, but it did not. At the June 20 budget discussion, SANCA officials asked the county to commit to $1.16 million annually from bed-tax dollars for the next three years. The county put $843,222 into the park this fiscal year.
In 2017, SANCA brought in $640,000 in revenue from events, $360,000 from donations, and $230,000 from venue sponsorships. Those were its top revenue sources.
The plan had been for county funding to decrease in 2019 to $304,500 because it would no longer fund the park’s personnel or event expenses.
Rodriguez said it’s important to understand SANCA’s role is two-fold — to bring in and manage events for the public and create economic impact as well as to run the county-owned 600-acre park itself. Rodriguez said the definition of “self-sustaining” should be re-evaluated.
Rodriguez said “100% of the money from Sarasota is tourism dollars. We do not take any money from the local taxpayers.”
“The public is getting a 600-acre public park paid for entirely by tourism tax dollars and the revenue we are generating and have donated to us,” he said.
Rodriguez said revenue comes from private donations, hosting events and team training fees, programming, canoe and kayak rentals, suite rentals at the Finish Tower, sponsorship of the park or events, vendors and parking on regatta island.
SANCA is evaluating all those revenue streams. Rodriguez said the park is shifting to an automated booking system for events to make the process more efficient, and rental fees will be changing as the new system comes online. SANCA’s staff members are evaluating rates for team training to see if they can be raised and still be competitive with other national venues.
Rodriguez said SANCA also is exploring new opportunities for signage that could generate revenue as well.
“We are looking event-wise at creating some more community events for the purpose of fundraising here at the park,” he said. “We expect to launch a schedule for 2019 later in the fall.”
He said he didn’t want to talk about other planned revenue-producing projects before he announces them to the public.
Overall, commissioners said they see the park as an asset for the county and hope dialogue with SANCA can improve the facility’s operations.
“Where are other opportunities to raise money, shrink this down a little bit?” Commissioner Charles Hines asked. “That’s what I want to hear from (SANCA). It sounds silly, but are you selling T-shirts? What are you charging for parking? What are you charging for drinks and water and those types of things?”
If the commission chooses not to fund SANCA, the park would revert to county control and be run by its Parks and Recreation Department. Despite the budget increases, county staff members have said it would be more expensive for the county to maintain and operate the park.
Sarasota Observer Deputy Managing Editor David Conway contributed to this report.