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 row.volunteer@gmail.com.

Dave Dickens March 24, 2012 at 05:00 PM
Could we have an elaborate fly over rendition of the fishing area(s) as well? I'm all for a rowing facility...within reason...but I can't help but wonder how it is this area went from a multitude of purposes to just a single purpose facility...all without any apparent concern for what it was being used for in the first place. Is anyone looking into turning Robart's Arena into a world class poker room? Someone should...they can use the same logic as with this "Olympic Rowing Facility". The Lord knows, we all like to play poker after a tough day on the water...rowing...
John Krotec March 25, 2012 at 12:24 AM
Its more than rowing. It's dragon boats, canoe and kayak, fishing, bird-watching, stand-up paddle boards, outdoor concerts, weddings, cross-country sports, bicycle and running paths, workout stations, reflective zen gardens, a butterfly garden, outdoor restaurants, new boat launch and dock, and a vfew other amenties. $150 million plus to the local economy.....jobs......
Dave Dickens March 25, 2012 at 12:10 PM
John, "more than just rowing"...the tag line at the bottom of the article...so...85% of what this park WILL be, is mentioned only in passing at the bottom of the story. Not to mention the fact that what you bring up as added amenities are "planned", whereas the rowing venue is the only real reality at this point. $150 mil...TO the local economy??? How is that going to happen? Annually? Over the span of a decade? Longer? Jobs?...No doubt, it will create SOME positions, but right now you say volunteers are used for everything. And, you say you need more. Will "volunteers" become paid employees at some point? Or, will you continue to use a volunteer staff at a "for profit" facility? I like to watch competitive rowing as much as the next guy. Our oldest son graduated from Riverview in 2008. He has friends that were on the Riverview Crew. I would just like to see MORE of what you claim this facility WILL be. You might have an easier time with the real agenda if you sell it better to the entire population rather than the ones you DON'T have to sell it to.
Fred Turner March 25, 2012 at 01:37 PM
I rent from Benderson. I can tell you firsthand that what he promises and what he delivers, are two different scenes. And where is the mall he plans to build in that picture? Take an already overcrowded intersection, put a mall there that is bigger than Brandon's, and you'll have utter gridlock. Who likes rowing anyway? Wouldn't it be more useful to put up some little league fields. Benderson is trying to sell something very unpleasing, and preserve a legacy (he's 92 years old) by putting his name on it.
John Krotec March 25, 2012 at 02:42 PM
Mr. Dickens, Come out and volunteer at a dragon boat, rowing, or running event! Visit the park and talk to one of the parents from another Florida city or other Southeastern State who brought their own kids here to row, a visiting Olympic or collegiate coach, FISA official, a military veteran rowing on the lake, ca ane pole fishermen fishing during an event, an early morning jogger, a dragon boat team member, a local vendor, or repeat volunteer. By the way, the construction has run out a number of perverts who were participating in lewd and lacivious behavior onsite at all hours of the day and night. Someday, there will be a managerial organization with paid positions helping to manage the funding, volunteers, and operational aspects of the park. Coincidentally, organizations (with paid employees) for facilities of this magnitude are found all over the planet. The economic forecasts from experts with more credentials than me have compared this facility with others like it to determine its potential. The figures have merit and are realistic. The real benefits to this park are not necessarily economic. I gave a tour of the park to a young man who had lost both legs in Afghanistan. The look on his face when thinking about the chance to participate in an adaptive rowing program on the lake made it crystal clear to me. Being involved in an initiative that gives hope to those who might have lost hope and struggle every day is worth any effort on my part. Join us.
Paddle Surf Warehouse August 23, 2012 at 12:42 PM
Stand Up Paddle Boarding should be in the Olympics. Paddle Surf Warehouse http://www.paddlesurfwarehouse.com
Howard Ribble May 25, 2013 at 07:38 PM
GREAT!!! Now, a personal note. We live at 3791 Surrey Lane, 34235, with the rear of the property butted up to a "berm" of fill soil (?) 6' high. What gives? Seems like everyone knows everything but us. Our phone #: 941-379-2433. The address is above. We would appreciate knowing.


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