USRowing National Championships showcase SANCA's ability to attract major events to Nathan Benderson Park.
Hosting hundreds of youth rowers and thousands of spectators June 6-9 for the USRowing Youth Nationals competition, Stephen Rodriguez was excited about Nathan Benderson Park’s future.
Rodriguez is the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates’ CEO and president, and his organization is tasked with overseeing and maintaining the 600-acre, Sarasota County-owned park. Sarasota County commissioners have taken a close look at the park’s finances over the past year and questioned its ability to generate funds.
National and international events, such as the USRowing Youth Nationals, are bringing in revenue crucial to the park’s overall success, so Rodriguez was pleased to see a steady stream of visitors.
SANCA showed a $383,897 profit from hosting events during the 2018-19 fiscal year, and events like the USRowing National Championships should help continue those positive numbers.
Another way SANCA hopes to generate more revenue is by hiring a development officer this fall. Rodriguez said the position will be critical to kick-start SANCA’s overall fundraising efforts, and the hiring will result in the new launch of a capital campaign for a future community center/boathouse at the park.
The community center/boathouse is key to the park’s financial growth as it will offer boat storage and spaces for park needs like fitness classes, offices and meeting spaces. Space in the new facility could be rented out for banquets or weddings. Rodriguez said such a facility will further set Nathan Benderson Park apart as the premier location for rowing and other events
in the region.
He is banking on the campaign to raise between $8 million and $10 million for the community center to take two to three years, though hopefully less.
“This could be the coaching and elite training focal point for rowing in the U.S.,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said SANCA also will be monitoring and cheering on the success of Mote Marine Laboratory as it raises funds for a $130 million aquarium on the northern end of the park. The aquarium could have positive financial repercussions for the park.
“It’s a very positive synergy,” Rodriguez said. “We’re bringing events in. Mote’s bringing visitors in. The benefit is you have an attraction that’s another amenity as a selling point for this park.”
According to SANCA’s annual report and business plan released in May, SANCA is profitable, covering its costs for putting on and hosting events.
“We’re there; SANCA and the events are self-sustaining,” Rodriguez said. “The county has always understood they would have to reimburse us for the operations and maintenance for the county park aspect part of things. We’re able to operate and maintain the park at a cost savings to Sarasota County.”
Sarasota County continues to reimburse expenses for operating the park portion of Nathan Benderson Park through tourism tax revenues. That figure is about $1.19 million annually.
Sarasota County commissioners last year asked for a plan to ensure SANCA and the park were becoming more self-sufficient.
To enhance revenues from facility rentals, parking and other sources, SANCA has added fundraising events such as the Turkey Trot 5K fundraiser on Thanksgiving Day 2018, and there are more scheduled for 2019.
“The residents of Sarasota county are getting a beautiful community park, as well as getting a boon of tourism and economic impact that comes from the events operated here,” Rodriguez said, noting that in 2018 the park hosted an event or training activity 287 days of the year.
He said he expects revenues from sponsorships, donations and from facility rentals to increase over time, especially after the community center opens. The addition of Mote’s aquarium also will attract business to the park.
“The vastness of this park allows us to do a lot more because you can have multiple events at the same time,” Rodriguez said. “There’s so much potential here for growth.”
Although SANCA’s future development officer won’t directly be tasked with handling events, he or she will help bring in revenue through sponsorships and other means.
Rodriguez said SANCA is shifting primary fundraising responsibilities away from the Nathan Benderson Park Foundation, which has been raising funds for park capital improvements, and will assume many of those fundraising duties itself. The foundation already has committed to a $4 million matching grant for the community center and will continue to support SANCA.
Rodriguez said he hopes to add enhancements, such as more shaded areas, an additional or expanded playground, pocket parks around the lake and possibly even an amphitheater in the near future. However, those improvement plans have not been not finalized.