As Michael Taaffe, the board chair of the Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy, stood on the roof of the finishing tower, he could see all the park offers.
But his vision that day goes beyond what is available in the present.
Taaffe, who is a partner with Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, took over as the new chair of the conservancy in September.
His vision for Nathan Benderson Park formed during the pandemic when he saw people gathering in small groups to exercise at the base of the finishing tower and using the stairs for extra cardio. He constantly saw people biking, running and walking on the trails and rowing and paddling in the lake.
“I see this facility as something different than we saw before,” Taaffe said. “It’s always been an elite rowing facility for rowing, dragon boating, canoeing and kayaking, but I see this as a diamond in the rough. We have 600 acres here, most of it underwater, but we can do so many things here that we had never thought we could do before.”
Now he’s working to make sure his vision becomes a reality.
What is your vision for the park?
My vision for this park morphed during COVID into something of an everyday park for people to come run, bike, row, paddle, get outside and workout outside. Then on the weekends it’s a place to have events in the community you can come see, watch or be involved in. The day-to-day ... it’s going to be an active park for people who want to be active and be athletic.
What are the plans for the trails in the park?
We’re going to expand them. There are two types of trails around the park. One is an asphalt trail that you can bike or run on, and there’s cinder trails for running or walking. We’re going to expand the cinder trails around the southern end of the park to add an additional two miles to the already existing trails, which is about 3.1 miles.
What do you envision for the playgrounds at the park?
I envision a playground that would be divided into a younger group of equipment for younger children and an older group of equipment that’s challenging for older children. Both will be under shade. We are also going to put, initially, a food truck or coffee truck over on that side by that so people who are watching their kids or whatever can get a cup of coffee or a little sandwich. Eventually, if that becomes feasible, we may expand the bathrooms there to add a small concession with coffee, sandwiches and juices for kids and for parents that are watching their kids.
And what about plans for a pavilion?
At the 500-meter mark (of the lake), we’re going to put a cement surface with a covering in the 40 by 60 foot range so people can do yoga, work out under shade and be covered on a dry, flat surface. During the weekends, if there’s an event, it will be another viewing area in the shade for viewing races and events.
What can you tell us about a potential boathouse being constructed at the park?
The boathouse is essential because we need a permanent facility to run community events and have a long term presence here for people who want to use the park on a daily basis or for events. I don’t want to get ahead of this because I don’t want to mess anything up. But it’s going to be great if it happens.
The anticipated I-75 overpass connecting the University Town Center area and Waterside Place of Lakewood Ranch could break ground in 2023 if funding is in place. What impact do you think the overpass is going to have on the park?
It’s going to open this park up directly to Lakewood Ranch without having to go through the University (Parkway) interchange. The flyover is going to have wide multi-use lanes for people for running and biking, so that will give us access to Lakewood Ranch and Lakewood Ranch access to us to run bigger biking and running events. By having the additional distance, we can do half marathons, we can do Iron Man’s, we can do full marathons because we have all the roadways, the Celery Fields. We’ll have all the access to that to run more long distance events that will start in the park and finish in the park but circle through Lakewood Ranch.
How does it feel knowing the potential of the park?
It’s pretty exciting. I’ve always known the potential of rowing and how it changes people’s lives. But to see people out here every day running, biking, walking, it makes you realize we’re going to have a more fit community, which is a benefit for all of us.
What do you think are going to be the biggest revenue generators with all the new improvements that you have planned?
I think the events on the weekends that bring teams from around the world or from around the nation that come here and stay for a week or two at local hotels and eat at local restaurants will bring revenue to the area. But that will not overshadow the day-to-day events that happen here during the week and the weekends for the community. It’s a symbiotic relationship between events that generate revenue and programs that benefit the community.
What are you looking forward to about the future of Nathan Benderson Park?
I can’t wait to break ground on a boathouse, community center, whatever the center is to give the community another gem over here. This place is a diamond in the rough, and that facility will finish this off very nicely.