With four major rowing or paddling events on the horizon, Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy CEO and President Stephen Rodriguez said he was delighted to see business back to normal at the park following the COVID-19 pandemic.
But when the Sarasota County Commission went into session May 10, it was anything but business as usual for the park.
Commissioners voted 5-0 to commit $20 million in resort taxes for a new boathouse and indoor sporting event center. The event center would be 100,000 square feet and would be on the second floor of the boathouse.
Sarasota County Director of Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Nicole Rissler made a presentation to county commissioners in which county staff recommended dedicating funding for the third additional 1-cent tourism development tax levy. at the boathouse and indoor sports complex. .
Rissler said that “in round numbers” she estimated the project would cost $40 million. She estimated that the boathouse alone would have been a project of around $10 million.
She said other than the $20 million committed by Sarasota County, other funds would have to be raised privately.
Nathan Benderson Park Board Chairman Michael Taaffe said in March that his nonprofit had raised about $7 million for the boathouse.
Rissler said donations and naming rights will be part of the fundraising effort.
It was a reaction to commissioners approving the Sarasota County 2022 Strategic Plan on January 11. This plan recognized the importance of the boathouse and indoor sports complex.
Rissler said Sarasota County staff will develop a new capital improvement project and work with Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy on concept plans, budget and operations and maintenance analysis.
She said these plans and concepts would be presented to the commission at the end of this year.
“It’s the start of a lot of work to figure out what’s going to go into this building,” Rissler said. “All programming is yet to come.”
Although Commissioner Nancy Detert voted in favor of the monetary pledge, she said the commission session was like talking about how much you love baseball “when the thing in front of us is a ballpark.”
But the rest of the commissioners all showed enthusiasm for the idea.
“It’s an absolutely wonderful thing,” Commissioner Alan Maio said. “It’s a long time coming.”
Commissioner Mike Moran told fellow commissioners to remember when the park was “an empty hole in the ground…a borrow pit.”
“It’s a no-brainer for me. It opens the door to extraordinary possibilities,” he said.
He said he sees a time when the indoor sports event center hosts a national tournament and visiting families visit the Mote Science Education Aquarium, play PopStroke and spend a day in Siesta Key.
Besides visitors, Moran said a sporting events center would fill a gap in the community in the ability to host national events.
The push towards an indoor sporting event center comes at a time when Nathan Benderson Park continues to develop its image as a community park with many assets.
It had developed its reputation as the best rowing facility in North America and bolstered that reputation by hosting the 2017 World Rowing Championships.
Plans for a new boathouse and event center also come at a time, as Rodriguez said, when the park’s event schedule resumes.
The International Dragon Boat Federation Club Crew World Championships from July 18-24 are expected to feature competitors from 12 nations and more than 3,500 participants. In the past month, the park signed agreements to host 13 national and international rowing, canoeing and dragon boating events.
Sarasota County staff recommended the tax pledge after a feasibility study on the indoor sports facility was completed by Johnson Consulting of Chicago.
This study estimated an initial economic impact of $20 million per year related to the new facility.
Rodriguez stressed that the proposed indoor sports complex was “the county’s project.”
In 2018, Suncoast Aquatics Nature Center Associates, now the conservation, said it had two plans for either a single-level boathouse that would include boat storage, change rooms, and a fitness center; and a two-level plan for a second-floor banquet hall to accommodate weddings, community events, and park programming. Estimates for the two-story facility were $10 million at the time.
Rodriguez agreed with Rissler that citizens should be patient as they await details on the project. He said the project is in its infancy and at this stage it is a concept in development. He said the county’s May 10 action is a step in the process, not a business plan.
He said the feasibility study was not about construction.
The study told the county it needed indoor competition space for basketball, volleyball, pickleball, cheering competitions, dance competitions, martial arts and more .
Rodriguez said the pursuit of a new boathouse/indoor sporting event center would obviously be the most exciting news of the 2022 calendar year, but he noted that right behind in the top three would be the championships. of the International Dragon Boat Federation Club Crew World. and the USRowing Masters National Championships Aug. 11-14.
Rodriguez is also excited that the park’s training programs are filling up again, which means increased revenue for the park.
He noted that the need for the boathouse is more related to programming than organizing rowing or paddling events. He said the park can already host these events.
The number of programs over the past five years at the park has increased by 1,800% to over 7,000 participants.
The park received $10,750 in donations during the Giving Challenge and that money will support programs aimed at creating opportunities for children who cannot afford the fees.
“We will serve the underserved,” Rodriguez said.
In fiscal year 2020-21, the park received $1.189 million in county funding. Rodriguez said conservation and the county are negotiating to maintain the same funding over the next two fiscal years.
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