Sarasota, Benderson Park Officials Welcome Scrutiny

Government

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY FRESHLY SQUEEZED CONTENT EVERY MORNING TUESDAY DEC 5, 2017

The World Rowing Championships may have put Nathan Benderson Park on a world stage, but the fact the event arrived before many once-promised structures could rise from the earth opened a fresh round of criticism of the venue, including inquiries from state lawmakers upset at a lack of financial accountability. But officials with Sarasota County and the organization managing the park remain optimistic about the future of the park.

This fall, state Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran requested an accounting of all spending at the facility, which has seen $15 million in state funding awarded. “The House will not tolerate attempts to shield from public scrutiny financial information relating to the expenditure of public dollars,” reads a letter from Corcoran. “The Legislature has enacted reforms and accountability measures to ensure transparency and good stewardship when it comes to public funds.”

The county and Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates, the organized contracted to run the park, have provided more than 700 pages of accounting material to the state since then that officials say will prove no funds were mismanaged. “Anything we have received, we have put back in the park,” says Stephen Rodriguez, SANCA president and CEO. “We as an organization only exist as stewards of the park for Sarasota County.” Rodriguez was announced for his post in July, a couple months before the World Rowing Championships that started in September.

The letter from Corcoran notes a promised boathouse that was not finished before the international event. At the Championships, the only major facility complete was a finish tower, which did a major role at the event. But detractors remain concerned that more structures, a selling point from the start for making the park into a sporting venue, have yet to start construction.

The parks brought some $22.6 million in economic impact for the state of Florida, according to a report generated for Visit Sarasota County, and generated 25,491 room nights in area hotels. That’s just a little shy, though, of the $25 million impact predicted, though officials note that Hurricane Irma impacting the region shortly before the games reduced the amount of time teams spent here before the championships.

Sarasota County Paul Caragiulo also notes that the long-term relationship with the World Rowing Championships should be taken into account, After speaking with athletes impressed by the venue, he’s confident the Championships will end up with some level of permanent presence in Sarasota. “It’s expensive, but everything worth doing on a scale like that is going to be expensive,” Caragiulo says.

State Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Clearwater and the expected speaker in the 2021-22 session, says so long as all books are in order, the issue won’t growing a problem. But based on concerns about mismanagement raised to the state, he says it’s important for the issue to be studied. “We’re not going to prejudge anything,” he says. “Once we get our questions answered, we will know what the taxpayer money was used for, and once we have that information, then we will go from there.”

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