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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.