Boating Bandwagon at Benderson Park

During my time at both Sarasota Patch and the Bradenton Herald, I got to learn about the merits of sculling, rowing and whatever other boat-related sport you can have.

The development of what became Nathan Benderson Park into a world caliber venue for aquatic sports—namely sculling and rowing—was a fun journey. It wasn’t without its controversy considering the costs, and it still is and probably will be after the World Rowing Championships finally come to the border of Sarasota and Manatee counties in 2018.

Here’s the downlow on how this all came to be in as much as I can reduce it before you dig into my clips:

-A few folks noticed how perfectly rectangle a old borrow pit that became a lake was and thought, huh, this would be cool to use for rowing.

-These folks talked to Nathan Benderson, the founder of powerful Benderson Development Company, about getting behind this cause. The man, who would ride his bike around this park up until the day he died, was convinced. They just needed to convince Sarasota County.

-The county said sure, they took the money from Benderson after talking to rowing officials that this could work. Benderson also saw how nice it would be considering how much land owns for retail sits just north of it. The lake was expanded for regulation racing over a period of time. A road was expanded and connected for better access.

-Donations were hard to come by through fundraising so the local rowing officials kept asking the State of Florida for millions of dollars to help finish the park and the buildings needed for the championships. (This is still happening in 2016.)

-In 2013, the park was awarded the 2017 World Rowing Championship plus additional events. Construction of the park still has not finished, but some main components are in place.

IMG, Benderson Park named finalists to host NCAA championship events

IMG and Benderson Park in running for multiple NCAA national title events.

Dragon Boat festival coming to Benderson Park, first time in U.S.

International Dragon Boat race at Benderson Park to bring 3,000 breast cancer survivors, seeking Bradenton-Sarasota team.


2016 Olympic trials could be test event for Benderson Park


Region could be host to Olympic trials event prior to Rio.

Manatee-Sarasota awarded World Rowing Championship



If Manatee-Sarasota win World Rowing Championship bid, the work begins

If the Sarasota-Manatee area is chosen, it will set off a flurry of activity because it takes more than building a rowing course to welcome the world.


Florida Gov. Rick Scott reaffirms support for rowing in Sarasota-Manatee

Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday reaffirmed his commitment to Nathan Benderson Park as a rowing venue as international rowing officials are deciding if Sarasota-Manatee will host the 2017 World Rowing Championships.

Rowing panel recommends Manatee-Sarasota for 2017 world championships

Manatee, Sarasota Set For World Rowing Championship Bid

Manatee County Commission approved a bid plan for the rowing championships at Nathan Benderson Park while Sarasota commissioners provided more money for marketing.
Manatee, Sarasota Set For World Rowing Championship Bid

The University Park and Lakewood Ranch area could be home to the largest rowing event outside of the Olympics if a bid to lure the 2017 World Rowing Championships is successful.

The Manatee County Commission gave the OK on Tuesday to bid for the world rowing championship, the Bradenton Herald reported:

“This event would mean so much more than the $25 million economic impact” over 13 days in September 2017, said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “This will brand our course, and give it the credibility worldwide for future sports championships.”

The Sarasota County Commission on Feb. 13 approved a plan to bid for the championships operated by the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron, or International Rowing Federation. The event would be held in Nathan Benderson Park, located in Sarasota County, near University Parkway and Interstate 75.

Sarasota County Commissioners on Wednesday, Feb. 27 also approved to provide Visit Sarasota County with $245,000 in additional tourism dollars for sports marketing for the event.

“I’m hoping we can get it,” Sarasota County Commissioner Christine Robinson said. “We sure need to try and make those efforts. I’m really looking forward to winning that bid.”

However, before they come, you must build it. The Florida World Aquatic Sports Center, as the Nathan Benderson Lake rowing facility is being called, right now includes the lake, a dock and some movable bleachers.

The bid for the 2017 World Rowing Championship is being submitted by the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Association, a non-profit also in charge of fund-raising $20 million to build the rowing stadium. Right now, Benderson Development is working to construct an island in the lake as part of the project beside the earth movers trying to lay the foundation for The Mall at University Town Center.

Virginia Hayley, president of Visit Sarasota County, told The Herald-Tribune knows it is a challenge:

“You don’t want to reach too far, too soon,” she said. “But to be honest I believe that pushing 2017 really makes sure we get the project done. It doesn’t languish for another 20 years. And in a way it makes it sexier to sell to potential corporate sponsors because you can see the impact of your donations.”

More from Bradenton Patch

If that fails, a temporary venue can be built for $5 million, the Herald-Tribune reported.

The 2017 championships are estimated to cost $6 million, and Visit Sarasota County officials expect that a “significant portion of this budget can be raised through ticket sales, merchandise, hotel room rebates and commissions and corporate sponsors.”

In 2012 dollars, Sarasota and Manatee County would see nearly $13 million in direct spending by athletes, coaches, officials and visitors, according to a Visit Sarasota County Board of Directors report.

Visit Sarasota County estimates that 42,000 visitors will come here for the championships in addition to about 1,200 athletes and 973 coaches from 62 countries, producing 40,000 room nights generated for hotel stays.

More than 126 million people viewed the championships on television, which heightens the importance of getting a good television rights deal to help pay for the expenses involved with hosting the championships, according to a Visit Sarasota report.

Sarasota and Manatee’s cost for the bid includes largely world travel during fiscal 2013, sending officials to Switzerland, Korea, Sydney and the United Kingdom to attend World Cup events, meeting with the sports’ officials governing body and to bid in person for the award. Each year, the delegation would travel to two rowing events and host FISA officials at Nathan Benderson Park.

Manatee County will use Tourist Development Council funds to pay for the $1.1 million for the championship, the Bradenton Herald reported, while Sarasota County will pay its $1.17 million in Tourist Development Tax and marketing funds, according to a Visit Sarasota County report.

“This is not being paid by our local taxpayer dollars,” Sarasota County Commissioner Joe Barbetta said. “None of your property tax dollars are being used for this.”

The costs for bid and event fees are split in half between the two counties, but the travel costs are dependant on which county officials are travelling, Hayley said.

“It’s a shared spirit that all of this is being met,” she said.


System Could Let You Walk On Water At Benderson Park Lake

Benderson will also propose changes to the shoreline area between its new University Town Center and Nathan Benderson Park.

A solution to choppy waves during rowing events at  lake could involve allowing people to walk on water.

Paul Blackketter, Benderson Development project manager for Nathan Benderson Park, provided before the Sarasota County Commission Wednesday some adjustments to design after a trip to Bulgaria where he met international rowing officials, and one of them resulted in the discussion of how to minimize waves on the lake.

Blackketter said rowing officials are looking at wave attenuation systems, and one of them could be a platform anchored underneath the surface that would absorb waves and could be adjusted to allow people to walk on.

Blackketter explains that an easterly wind blows across the lake that builds up waves across racing lanes, and a high-tech system would help resolve the wave issues.

“We’ve also looked into these floating platforms that would be anchored, and it actually expands the use where you can possibly walk out on them, and we’re going through that whole process of understanding what is that perfect system that we can afford that would best suit this facility and most importantly, meet those standards,” Blackketter said.

The system is included in a $5 million contract funded by an Enterprise Florida grant approved by the commission Wednesday. This was the $5 million that the Legislature approved and Gov. Rick Scott approved, after Scott had vetoed the money in 2011.

The exact type and form of wave attenuation system has not been selected yet.

The grant would do the following:

• Construction an east island bridge to the park island

• Install a wave attenuation system

• Land development for the park island to be prepared for future buildings ad amenities.

“We’ve had different opportunities to build land masses — the lake’s too deep, it’s too expensive,” Blackketter said.

So far the construction of the island that will be used for launching boats is half complete with dredging expected to be finished in November, he said, and hopes that will be in use by the 2013 season.

When the rowing venue is complete, it’s slated to be called the Florida World Aquatic Center.

Shoreline Changes

Blackketter also previewed a proposal that Benderson will ask for that would tweak the north end of the park and how the Benderson and Taubman Centers-owned University Town Center will face the lake.

The previewed shoreline design change concerned Commissioner Nora Patterson.

“It looks like you’ve actually put buildings on the shoreline there on either side of what looks like a public space,” Patterson said.

Blackketter called the design a “placeholder” and that Benderson is working with designers about property around a linear park area.

He said the space between the shopping center and Nathan Benderson Park “was pretty expansive” and were looking for better connectivity between the two properties.

“This is a discussion that we’re going to have to come with you and talk in great detail,” he said, adding the proposal will detail exactly where the public and private lands begin and end.

County staff’s concerns includes what would be done with the $19 million contribution for the rowing park by the county in those plans and what additional maintenance costs it would bring to the county, County Administrator Randall Reid said.

“It’s also pretty valuable waterfront property as we work this together,” he said.

Venue Potential

A delegation of Blackketter and other rowing venue workers recently visited a Plovdiv, Bulgaria, for the 2012 World Senior and Junior Rowing Championships, where they met a member of the International Olympic Committee and the International Rowing Federation’s top official to show them what Sarasota’s design plans are.

The visit resulted in some design tweaks for shading, seating and other elements, Blackketter told the commission, but at no additional cost, and believes if anything, the design suggestions by the International Rowing officials could save them money.

“They really want to see this course come into fruition,” he said.

Blackketter believes the same world events could be at Benderson Park by 2015 such as collegiate championships, gearing up for the international championship in 2017.

“There’s no question that we have the ability to host these world rowing championships right here in Sarasota, Florida,” Blackketter said.

The trip wound up bringing some partnerships where at a dinner table Blackketter received an offer from the Italian rowing delegation.

“They said, ‘We want to bring our entire Italian team to Sarasota to train,'” he said.

Commissioner Joe Barbetta is pleased with the park’s progress.

“This is just getting better every day,” he said. “We’ve seen a pretty substantial economic impact already in its current state. Obviously when it’s done it’s probably going to be one of the top three in the world.”

Nathan Benderson Park Milestones

November: South lake dredging complete

February 2013: North Cattleman Road extension complete

March 2013: Park island and two vehicle bridges complete

March 2013: Wave attenuation system complete

Source: Sarasota County Government

Benderson Park Plans, Expansion Rowing Ahead

Benderson Development Co. celebrated Friday the expansion of the lake at Nathan Benderson Park from 1,800 meters to 2,000 meters, ushering in state championship events.


The 200-meter deficit that separated Sarasota from being a premier rowing destination is no longer a barrier.

After months of excavating and expanding the old quarry lake at Nathan Benderson Park, there is now 2,000 meters of straightaway to host official sprint events from around the state, and if all goes to plan by 2017, the World Rowing Championships.

Benderson Development Co. celebrated Friday the expansion of the lake from 1,800 meters to 2,000 meters at a community barbecue at the park while also signaling the beginning of the next phases for the park.

The first 2,000-meter race, the Florida Scholastic Rowing Association Sculling Championships, is set for April 15.

Sarasota County approved plans March 14 for the park and to spend an additional $19.5 million on the project while state lawmakers allocated $5 million for the project. This is already in addition to $13.7 million in federal stimulus money and $1.5 million from Manatee County government.

What folks driving by the park will see is work on Regatta Island begin, using fill from the North Cattleman Road extension begin this month and hopefully be finished by next year, said Paul Blackketter, Benderson’s lead man on the park.

“By this time next year, we’ll be able to run our regattas off Regatta Island,” Blackketter said. What that means is that boats will use that base as a launching and recovery point as the docks will be centered there.

“That’s going to be a huge deal since we’re going to be hosting the National Masters’ Championship this time next year,” he added.

Phase II is the first layer of  “icing on the cake” Blackketter noted, having walking and running trails around the lake and adding landscaping, even with help from the Boy Scouts planting trees.

Phase III is the vertical phase, building a boathouse, grandstands and everything to host a world championships. By the end of all of all the work, the park’s venue will be called the Florida World Aquatic Center.

The park is busy as it is, perhaps somewhat surprising in its raw form.

About 250 to 300 volunteers ranging from 16 year old to 85 years old help out at events right now, said John Krotec, volunteer organizer the Regatta Organizing Committee at the park. About 1,200 volunteers help during the year for the various high school, college and regional competitions.

“Right not it’s a logistical nightmare and we’re dealing with it and it’s working,” Krotec joked, as the park is a construction project in progress.

Volunteers are needed for parking, greeting, hospitality, traffic security, docks, boat drivers, path control and more, he said.

Beyond volunteering, Krotec is also working on inclusiveness, wanting to bring in events for disabled veterans and athletes as well as bring in kids who come from disadvantaged communities to take up rowing.

“It’s about community rowing and giving young adults, girls and boys, the chance to do something that they might not have the opportunity to do,” he said.

Rowing Ahead

As the park builds, so do the rowing programs hosted there. The construction and news of the park’s plans is helping grow the sport in the Manatee and Sarasota county region.

“It’s exposing the kids and the athletes to the bigger picture of rowing,” said Randy Higel, men’s head coach for the Sarasota Scullers. “There’s a chance to see collegiate activity, some elite activity.”

Both Higel and Sarasota Crew head coach Casey Galvanek said increased awareness and growth of the sport in the area is the ultimate benefit of the park’s next phases.

High school is where the growth has been noticeable so far.

Two years ago, Sarasota Crew had 45 high school rowers, then grew to 91 last year and this year they have 143 high school rowers, Galvanek said.

“When we did the budget, the board based it on reasonable growth and we thought 110 kids,” he said. “To have those numbers we were like, “Oh! We have to go buy more equipment.”

Manatee County schools, Higel noted, see the greatest raw growth where Manatee, Palmetto and Southeast high schools all have programs now. They train at the Manatee County boathouse at Fort Hamer Park in Parrish.

“That was an unexposed area for high school kids,” Higel said of Manatee.

Manatee is serious about providing a place for kids to row, The Bradenton Herald explained:

“In conjunction with the work at Nathan Benderson Park, Manatee County government is in the design stage of making $650,000 of improvements to Fort Hamer Rowing Park in Parrish.

The Manatee County project management department is planning to receive bids for the design by late summer and start construction by the fall, said county spokesman Nick Azzara. The improvements would include building a boat and trailer parking lot, boat ramp improvements, a playground, dock enhancements, gates, new stormwater system, a canoe/kayak storage area, a garage for parks and recreation equipment and a caged parking area for scull trailers.”

For the serious scullers, what these intermediary steps before the grand completion mean to rowers is an advantage for practicing for competitions.

Regatta facilities on the East Coast and Gulf Coast of Florida can only host two boats at a time in the water, explained Sarasota Crew head coach Casey Galvanek.

Higel said it’s especially key for the blind boats where lanes are necessary and knowing you’re rowing in a straight line.

Whether elite athletes or recreational athletes, the next step to take is having folks show up to the competitions,sitting in the bleachers to cheer the rowers on, Higel said.

“Whether you’re a rowing fan or not, to watch the competition and the effort they put in is pretty inspiring,” Higel said.

An Olympic Venue

Benderson Park is pegged as a regional park, noted Virginia Haley, president of Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“We have this amazing new asset that’s going to propel Sarasota on the international stage with competitions the likes we’ve not seen before,” she said. “We thought the regattas we had were big. Wait until you see what’s coming down the road.”

Blackketter’s personal goal is to host the world championships, but as a map points out of FISA (Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron, or International Federations of Rowing Associations) rowing facilities, there are a select few in the world. London and Beijing’s both were made for the Olympics.  Sarasota’s would be the only permanent Class A international rowing venue in North America when completed.

If Tampa were to ever bid for the summer Olympics, would Florida World Aquatic Center be a part of a package that could seal the deal? Olympic teams already use the lake for training and promotional materials say the park and lake will meet the World Olympic standard.

“The biggest reason Chicago didn’t get the Olympics is that they didn’t have an adequate rowing facility,” Blackketter said. “This is an Olympic facility for rowing, canoeing, kayaking, sprint — all the paddle board sprints — this is an Olympic facility for rowing. It will meet all their specifications.”

Given the rarity of hosting an Olympic Games, the World Championships would prove to be a more regular large-scale event, he explained.

“That’s a promise we can make to have a world scale championship,” he said. “The Olympics — so many different things involved with that.”

“Our expectations is that we’ll have a major event here every weekend year-round when this thing is fully developed,” Blackketter said, who added he hopes to have the Sunshine Games hosted at the park one year.

As Randy Benderson, son of Nathan Benderson Sr., attended the celebration, he was modest about what this means to his family and what he hopes it becomes.

“Just a world class park that we’ve been talking about for several years for all different types of water sports and running, walking, biking,” he said.

More Than Just Rowing

The park will be more than just rowing. Rowing just makes up 15 percent of the park’s activities, Blackketter said. Canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboard, cross country running, wakeboarding, water skiing, fishing, and dragon boat.

“Anything that’s green and conducive to this venue, we’re open to all different programs,” he said.

The Pan Am Drag Boat Championships is slated for Oct. 20 and 21 at the park and will be coupled with a Sarasota Dragon Boat Festival. In 2014, teams from more than 60 teams are anticipated to compete in the Breast Cancer Dragon Boat Festival, Krotec said.


Want to volunteer at a rowing event? Contact John Krotec at


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