As the crowds finally cleared from the rowing world’s biggest event of the year at Nathan Benderson Park, tourism leaders beamed with satisfaction that an event in the works for so long had finally come to fruition. “Now that we’ve had the World Rowing Championships here,” glows Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota, “even more teams will be interested in coming from around the world.” Indeed, years of preparation—lobbying world rowing federation FISA, wooing collegiate teams, constructing international competition-ready facilities—at last culminated in a nine-day series of races and special events and a $22.6-million economic impact for the state of Florida. But that level of success doesn’t completely sway critics, who say the boost still doesn’t offset the total public investment in preparing the Cattlemen Road park for this event. And it doesn’t erase the financial missteps that delayed a level of private sector investment in the venue, still viewed by some as sluggish. Years of reported financial and management issues of the park remain a sore subject for watchdog groups like Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government and Control Growth Now. For all the dollars directed to the sporting venue, many promised structures have yet to break ground. And this fall, state Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran—a politician with an eye on the governor’s mansion—turned a skeptical glare at the University Park facilities, or the lack thereof. 

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Now a different and seemingly unending competition continues, between the concerns of those who label the park a financial boondoggle that failed to meet expectations quickly enough to satisfy an unrealistic timeline, and those who see it as a regional treasure redefining the Gulf Coast’s brand on an international stage and bettering life in the region for coming generations. The World Rowing Championships drew nearly 42,000 people to the area last fall, leading to more than 25,000 room bookings. But many citizens feel the vision of Nathan Benderson Park as a world-class venue never came to life on the scale promised before the games began. Critics suggest the venue today bears little resemblance to renderings put before the public a half-decade ago.

Pat Rounds, a founding member of Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government, points to presentations made to Sarasota County Commissioners six years ago that show five buildings planned at the park, and with a price tag that was less than county officials would ultimately pay. Most notably, that includes an $8- to 10-million boathouse where teams could rent space to house vessels. The only new structure built before the World Rowing Championships, though, was a Finish Tower, a state-of-the-art facility where officials and timers could watch over races, but nothing more.

“If you look at the park today, there’s one building,” Rounds says. “Other ones were supposed to be there by now. Grandstands were supposed to be permanently installed. There were supposed to be other amenities and they simply are not there.”

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 for physical improvements. “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.”

Rounds says her major problem was that a massive commitment was made, not just to the community but to the world, that the park would be ready for an international event, and that was promised with a due date that was not met. That involved a $60-million commitment from the private and public sector, and the public side was met. In addition to the state’s $15 million, Sarasota County has invested $25 million at the park and Manatee County has contributed another $2.5 million. “Where has the money gone?” she asks. “The park is a beach except for the finish tower.” That the park was selected for the games this year over an established venue in Bulgaria just makes things more embarrassing, she says.

Dan Lobeck, founder of Control Growth Now, suggests the public has benefited enough from the park, but it’s been a boon to Benderson Development, the corporation that played such a major role in the public-private partnership to convert a public park into a major sporting venue. Benderson is the project manager for improving the site, so it benefits from that contract. Additionally, the venue sits adjacent to The Mall at University Town Center, a property Benderson built and still partially owns with Taubman Centers, and a commercial area surrounded by other strip malls owned by Benderson. Of course, Benderson officials played a major role in the park coming together. Mark Chait, executive director of leasing for Benderson, says it was the company that was originally approached by rowing organizations about the potential of Cooper Creek, a contained lake with no wave activity, as a crew venue. The company figured what it would take to turn the lake into an Olympic-size course ready for international competition. And the company donated property to help extend Cattlemen Road to University Parkway, an essential move to ensure large crowds could access the park.

“We worked with the county and started holding rowing events, and quickly saw we could create a wonderful amenity for the area,” Chait says. The park would be named for Nathan Benderson, the company founder, on his 90th birthday; Nathan Benderson has since passed. 

All the close involvement of the company, though, unnerves those who question who the park most benefits. The fact the park is run by the county but managed by Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates [SANCA], which is closely associated with Benderson, makes matters worse for Lobeck. SANCA from 2013 to 2016 was managed by Paul Blackketter, a former Benderson executive who shepherded plans for the park before moving to the new nonprofit.

Blackketter’s reign at SANCA proved rocky. While he won praise for landing the World Rowing Championships in 2013, he came under intense fire shortly after when it was revealed SANCA had not properly filed paperwork with the state to allow private fundraising to move forward.  Indeed, this setback prevented the Nathan Benderson Park Foundation from being able to raise private investments until efforts were already underway to raise money for the World Rowing Championships themselves. In early 2016, Blackketter again faced a scandal when video was posted online of Blackketter delivering an expletive-laden tirade at an employee at the park. He ultimately resigned in September 2016, about a year before the games, and instead pursued private consulting. 

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Chait says many of the complaints leveled are old news, problems faced and solved years ago. And the idea that the park draws people to Benderson’s commercial property more than the other way around doesn’t make sense in his eyes. “We have significant commercial properties that generate their own traffic,” Chait says. “This was really done through a philanthropic means just to create a great amenity to the Sarasota-Manatee area.”  Those managing the park today say they have nothing to hide as far as finances. Sarasota County and SANCA have provided more than 700 pages of accounting material to the state since, 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 in September.

Rodriguez came on at SANCA about a month before the games, and previously worked at the Florida Sports Foundation. The resume should prove valuable not just in managing Nathan Benderson Park but in building public trust in financial stewardship, says Haley. “He knows what customers expect out of a sports venue, and he also has had to work within state government parameters when dealing with public money.”

Haley, who worked with Blackketter to lure the championships here, notes that a Finish Tower was the only facility ever formally promised to FISA. And Chait notes that the tower’s construction was financed completely with money raised by the Nathan Benderson Park Foundation, which Benderson Development President Randy Benderson chairs. More importantly, Haley notes, FISA was deeply pleased with how the games turned out.  Sarasota County Commissioner Paul Caragiulo said he actually came into office skeptical about the amount of money spent on Nathan Benderson Park, but left the games as one of the venue’s biggest boosters. The most important feedback, he says, came from those rowing the course. “The only ones I wanted to hear from at the event were the actual athletes,” Caragiulo says. “They all said the same thing—that this was an amazing facility.”

It’s actually something the park has heard since before any improvements were made. The park exists around a borrow pit originally dug for materials to pave Cattlemen Road, but that has made for an enclosed course that only had to be expanded slightly to meet international event standards. The weather in Sarasota allows for rowing year-round, and there’s no part of the course where spectator stands cannot be installed. The park has gone out of its way to make sure water does not get disrupted, making races fair for crews in any lane.

“When you are looking at the success of a sporting event, look to your clients,” Rodriguez says. “So long at the athletes are happy, and in turn FISA was happy, then, to us, we feel things were successful.”

Rodriguez says FISA already asked the park to submit a bid for international events in 2019. The park will also host the World Rowing Masters Championship, an event catering to rowers older than 27. The next chance to host a World Championships here likely won’t come until 2022, as championships in between have already been scheduled. But at the end of the World Championships, FISA president Jean-Christophe Rolland in a closing speech promised, “We will be back very soon.”

Visit Sarasota County reports the games in total generated more than $22.6 million in economic impact for the state of Florida, with a $16.7-million impact on Sarasota and Manatee counties alone. That’s shy of the predicted $25 million impact anticipated before the games, which were hampered when Hurricane Irma shut down practices for a week in advance of the event. But Haley says it’s important to remember this was just the largest event to be held, not the first. The park has been hosting collegiate championships, youth tournaments and countless practices from out-of-state teams since opening in 2013. Visit Sarasota County has kept a running tally of 128 events at Nathan Benderson Park that they helped promote starting in August of 2014, and, collectively, those events brought an economic impact of $56.7 million to the state. The World Rowing Championships make up the biggest chunk of that by far, but plenty of major events add to the total, including the Modern Pentathlon World Cup in 2015 ($5.8-million impact), IBCPC Dragon Boat Festival in 2014 ($6.3-million impact) and USRowing Youth National Championships in 2017 ($7-million impact). In addition, the park has provided a new home to local attractions like Circus Sarasota’s annual shows, which in 2017 generated a $5.8-million economic impact alone.

Haley also says that the attention of the international sports world in September has created other possibilities for the region even outside of Nathan Benderson Park. Teams training here over a three-year period generated a $7.8-million economic impact alone, according to Visit Sarasota County. A flurry of calls about soccer tournaments and events utilizing the beach have flooded into Visit Sarasota County, a sign that efforts to raise the region’s profile as a sports capital got a lift from the championship. 

Certainly, officials would like to see improvements in facilities. But Haley says the lack of a boathouse at the World Championships made less difference than people think. She knows from attending other world championships in preparation of the games in Sarasota that no venue in the world can provide boathouse space to the thousands of athletes competing at this level of event. Extra racks and tents would have been employed for the event regardless. The benefit of a boathouse, in truth, will be making the park more financially sustainable by have space for visiting teams to rent during practices and visits to the park outside of tournaments. She also balks at the suggestion no improvements have been made to the park beyond the Finish Tower. That’s the only major new building, but it was constructed on a terra-formed island, Pedestrian walkways now allow people to cross over the lengthy rowing course and improvements to the land allow for grandstands to go up and down for events.

A Visit Sarasota study of the games impact on the region also measured the satisfaction of teams and attendees, and queried both their feelings on the event and on Sarasota as a whole. Among competitors, 86 percent said they would like to return to Sarasota for vacation, and, among attendees, 47 percent said they would definitely return to the Sarasota-Manatee area; among American attendees 85 percent said they would come back. In total, 95 percent of those attending the games in some capacity said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the event.

None of that necessarily addresses or cures concerns about the private fundraising for the park, which Rodriguez says will step up now that the championships are done. And it won’t stop the state from checking on every dollar sent from Tallahassee to University Park. Criticisms have been constant in the park’s short history, but Corcoran’s interest heated up shortly after the world championships completed. It also comes just as the Republican prepares to run for governor. A group of his political allies in Tallahassee have also made public calls for better accounting of how $10 million in state funding for the park has been spent. 

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 grow into a problem. But based on concerns about mismanagement raised to the state, he says it’s important the issue 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.”

Rounds says the state may need to pursue clawback provisions on grant money if any of it was misspent. Lobeck says he would like to see a full audit of SANCA and the Nathan Benderson Park Foundation. Lobeck personally feels public investments in sporting facilities are a bad idea in general, but Rounds says her concern isn’t so much in the promise of a world-class facility in Sarasota as much as the fact so much of that commitment remains unfulfilled.

Caragiulo says he can appreciate the desire of state officials to make sure there’s accountability on the spending of state dollars. “They should scrutinize the hell out of it,” he says. But he’s confident there won’t be malfeasance. “I hope they are okay with what they find. They are going to arrive at their own conclusions.” Regardless, he says the community will reap benefits for years to come from having a world-class sporting venue here.