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Our View: Rowing park questions

  • By
  • | 4:00 a.m. November 2, 2011
  • East County
  • Opinion
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Nathan Benderson Park just keeps growing, in scope and in cost. As an international rowing destination, it could be a huge sports tourism draw to Sarasota and Manatee counties. And certainly Benderson Development Co. has worked to get enthusiastic neighbor support.

The Sarasota County Commission voted unanimously last week to approve an expanded plan for the park, pushing the price from what originally was a modest $3 million proposal to a $40 million “world-class” facility. The expanded version includes bridges and turning the events center into an island so rowers can loop around it. There are parks, walkways, a nature center, fitness stations, playgrounds, gardens and a fishing lake with boat ramp, in addition to the necessities for regattas.

This is a risk-reward venture. As such, it is troubling that so much of the $40 million rowing regatta park is being paid for by government in one of those often-touted “public-private partnerships.” Sarasota County’s $19.5 million is coming from the tourist bed tax, which is supposed to be used to promote the area and renourish beaches. Because hotels that collect the tax — those in north Sarasota County and East Manatee County, at least — stand to gain financially from the park, it is not a bad source of funding if the county is determined to fund it with tax dollars.

But that is only half of the financing. County and Benderson officials will be seeking money from the state and federal government and private donations. It is too easily forgotten that state and federal sources also come from taxes.

Benderson has a reputation for making smart, savvy choices. Sarasota County, not so much. Consider:

• First, although owned by the county as Cooper Creek Park, it is re-named after Benderson’s founder, Nate Benderson, leaving a legacy for the family and name recognition for the company. As some might say, you can’t buy that kind of P.R.

• Second, the bigger the park, the more valuable becomes the huge Town Center development Benderson is working on at University and Interstate 75. To that end, the county just approved changes to Benderson’s plan to orient the development more toward the park, including two hotels.

• Third, the county awarded Benderson a no-bid, $2.8 million management contract for the project, plus the authority to choose the designer and builder of the park. Both of those are highly unusual when public funds are involved. The management contract itself represents about three times the normal percentage for such contracts. Benderson officials point out they are managing much more than construction and coordinating construction internationally.

We have no qualms with Benderson going for the gold. It’s to the region’s benefit to do the park first class. But we do question the government’s role.

The principle in this stands. The hotel bed tax is a pretty good source, if public money is going to be used. But why should people in Live Oak or Sunrise have to pay for a Sarasota-Manatee sports entertainment complex? And even more so, why should people in Montana or North Carolina? The questions answer themselves.

These types of projects should be private. If governments had not jumped in to lure companies and activities to their communities, creating competition to see who will give away the most taxpayer money, the private sector would have found a way to do these things. That may have meant higher prices, but why shouldn’t the cost of such ventures be paid for by the people who use them? Why must taxpayers all over the state and country subsidize a few users?

Answer: They shouldn’t.


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