Former head of Balboa Park Conservancy accepts challenge at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota.
As Tomás Herrera-Mishler stood on a dock at Nathan Benderson Park on his first day as the president and CEO of Suncoast Nature Center Associates, a solitary rower on the lake crossed the finish line.
Herrera-Mishler, meanwhile, was just starting his race Aug. 3.
While the 600-acre park already has earned a reputation as North America's premier rowing facility along with greatly expanding its offerings to the community, Herrera-Mishler took the job because he sees the potential for so much more.
SANCA, a nonprofit which oversees the park for Sarasota County, has grown so quickly its board of directors felt a change was needed in the leadership structure.
"With team training, events and programming, the park had something programmed 362 days (in 2019)," said Stephen Rodriguez, who until Aug. 3 was SANCA's CEO and president.
"The focus of every day managing that growth doesn't leave much time to go out and do fundraising," said Rodriguez, who has switched to the role of chief operating officer. "My day isn't going to change."
Ron Shapo, SANCA's chairman of the board, said Rodriguez saw the vision of where the park was headed and was open to changing titles.
"Stephen is a wonderful representative," Shapo said. "You just can't dance at every wedding."
So in May, SANCA hired a search firm to find a possible CEO and president who would complement Rodriguez. At the same time, Herrera-Mishler resigned after five years as president and CEO of the 1,200-acre Balboa Park Conservancy, which was suffering from a loss of funds from the COVID-19 pandemic. He didn't want his salary to further deplete the conservancy's reserves that were key to a park that included the San Diego Zoo, 17 museums and 20 public gardens.
Herrera-Mishler, 58, and SANCA then connected. Interviews were scheduled and Sarasota County commissioners were invited to participate. SANCA was, after all, going to increase its budget during the pandemic.
Tax records show Rodriguez has been earning $130,000 a year as CEO/president. Herrera-Mishler will earn $200,000 a year. Helping the process along, the Nathan Benderson Park Foundation and other donors agreed to pay Herrera-Mishler's salary for his first 18 months.
It all impressed Herrera-Mishler, who was born and raised in Mexico, attended the University of Michigan and then landed his first job in Florida as a landscape architect at Wallace Roberts Todd in Coral Gables. During that time, he worked on master plans for the Ringling Museum and the Civic Center in Sarasota.
That experience, 34 years years ago, intrigued him about returning to the Sarasota area.
"Sarasota is very appealing to me and my wife (Mercedes Maria de la Kotska Herrera Rojas de Mishler)," he said. "I was a finalist for jobs in different parts of the U.S., but this was it. Thirty-four years ago I fell in move with Sarasota's arts and culture. And I'm a real foodie."
What intrigues him most, though, is building a renowned park.
He said he will spend the coming months collecting information from the community about their hopes and dreams for Nathan Benderson Park, but he promises more trees will be planted and more shade will be available.
"If you walk down the shell path under the pines. the potential is there for a beautiful landscape," he said. "We will be looking to expand the landscape quality. They have built such a great framework here, and the infrastructure is in place."
Perhaps more important will be the reputation he has built as a fundraiser. Shapo admits the fundraising effort for the planned $10 million events center/boathouse is stuck in neutral. The Benderson Park Foundation has pledged up to a $5 million match for funds raised, and SANCA continues to work on its first million.
But Shapo said is the right man for the job.
"At times when I was a landscape architect, I didn't think that someone had to fund this (idea). But in building a vision, in sharing a vision, you've got to have the resources to make it happen. The park foundation's 50% match is incredibly philanthropic. We have to get the other half. It has to be a top priority."
He said building relationships with trust and always "doing what you say you are going to do, every time," are the key factors in raising funds.
The intangible factor that attracted him to the job was the people he met. He said the SANCA employees and local politicians were "passionate, smart, generous and hardworking."
"That is compelling for me," he said.