January 17, 2018
Sarasota turns a one-time borrow pit into an economic engine

Photo: Del Mecum/Newscom

The 2017 World Rowing Championships in Sarasota attracted more than 40,000 visitors.

Southwest Florida Roundup

Sarasota turns a one-time borrow pit into an economic engine

Art Levy | 11/28/2017

In the 1960s, workers mined tons of rock and shell at a site near the border of Manatee and Sarasota counties, leaving behind a nearly 500-acre rectangular, shallow pit. In time, the hole filled with water. And by 2010, the lake had become a favorite of local rowers, who appreciated its still waters and straight shores. A team of rowers, business leaders and Sarasota County planners saw opportunity, believing the lake could be converted into a world-class rowing venue. The effort culminated this fall, when Sarasota County’s Nathan Benderson Park hosted the 2017 World Rowing Championships, an 11-day competition that’s considered the “Super Bowl” of rowing events.

To be eligible to host the championships, the park had to complete a series of improvements, including constructing a $6-million, six-story “finish tower” to house race officials and all the required timing and video equipment that must be stationed parallel to the 2,000-meter course’s finish line.

More improvements are planned. Next up is raising $10 million to build a permanent boathouse, which will include boat storage, locker rooms, a fitness center, restrooms, offices and event rental space. It’s projected to open by 2020.

“We’ve built the tower — that’s the brain,” says Stephen V. Rodriguez, president and CEO of the park’s Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center. “The boathouse will be the heart.”

He says the investments are paying off. The world championships, for example, attracted more than 40,000 people, a total that doesn’t include 1,700 athletes, coaches and other support staff. Rodriguez says the meet’s economic impact was estimated at $25 million, with other rowing events this fiscal year accounting for another $30 million.

“This park,” he says, “is a perfect example of how a community can get together with the right support and the right vision and take an area that you would think could be used for nothing — it was a big hole in the ground — and turn it into an economic development generator.”

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