Sarasota takes a role in world rowing

All photos courtesy of Liz Hampton

Students who use Interstate 75 or have made a trip to the Super Target recently may have noticed a change in the scenery. At the corner of Cattleman Road and University Parkway, giant banners have appeared declaring Sarasota as the “New Home of World Rowing.” But for many New College students, the land to the right of Target is nothing more than something they’ve vaguely wondered about. Those passersby who think it sounds too grandiose to be true that the grey space off of University could ever become the world’s next great rowing facility are not alone. Even the people who are currently making it a reality can hardly believe how the project is unfolding.

“They got to the right people at the right time,” said name. “The timing was perfect to make such a proposal. We made the change and started to do diligence and we had an opportunity to host regattas as a result of the Tampa bypass canal drying up, which first came to our attention in 2008. We started state championship in April 2009, which was a huge success”

The proposal in question is a multi-phase plan to turn Nathan Benderson Park into a 2,000 meter world class rowing and aquatics facility and public park. Rowing clubs in the Sarasota area developed the idea when they heard of the reconstruction plans for Cattleman Road and how that would affect the lake that runs parallel. What the teams realized was that if the road were made to go around the lake towards the east that the lake would be extended by about 200 meters, turning it from a decent 1,500 meter course (appropriate for high school races) to a 2,000 meter course designed for collegiate and professional races.

What made the idea even more appealing is the fact that the United States has yet to create a permanent rowing course that is over 1,500 meters: the course in Sarasota would be the first of its kind in the country.

“We’ll be the best course in the United States,” stated Jason Puckett, who runs the sports marketing program of the convention of visitors bureau. “Pretty much in the Western Hemisphere [as well], because there was pretty much no facility that was dedicated to rowing. Even in Atlanta when we held the Olympics everything was brought in for the event. And when it was done, it was gone.”

The vision for the lake and the land around it is not only for big races, however. A huge motivator behind the project is community outreach and development for master rowers as well as youth and adaptive rowing programs. Adaptive rowing programs are therapeutic programs for the mentally and physically disabled. This community-centered plan has inspired hundreds of volunteers to donate their time to the project over the past four years.

“We’re a force,” Puckett said. “We have over 300 volunteers that we can pull from and some great committee members that put in a lot of time. I initially got involved from the tourism standpoint, but now I see the big picture. I see what this can mean for our community in the future. I grew up here and I plan on staying here. You know this place? It’s just great.”

Though the focus is currently on developing the rowing side of the project, the total vision for the land and the lake is much more comprehensive.

“We want to have all kind of events out here,” park manager Bob Whitford said.  “Rowing events out here, kayaking and canoeing events out here, stand up paddling events, dragon boats, outriggers. There’s concrete canoes for colleges of engineering. There’s lots of opportunities to use our water out here.”

By taking advantages of these opportunities the county expects to bring not only a rich culture of aquatic sport to Sarasota, but also a huge new form of revenue.

“We expect once this is done and we have all the college teams coming to train, and we’re having 10 events a year … I mean, this park could bring in over $25 million [in] economic impact,” Puckett said. “Last year just with the four regattas we had we did some numbers and it was almost $4 million of economic impact. And it’s just filling up our hotel rooms. It’s just driving business to restaurants and retail shops.”

One of the most surprising aspects of the project is the international attention it is garnering. The members of the community who have been working on the project have made it a priority to ensure that the international rowing community is aware and engaged in the changes going on in Sarasota.

“FISA is the international governing body of rowing,” Puckett explained. “We convinced them to come here, and they came here and saw our course and they gave us the thumbs up. We’re good to go, and our goal is to host the world [championships] in 2017.”

Members at the top of the project have already done extensive research at rowing facilities across the United States as well as New Zealand and, as of next August, Slovenia.

“It’s to make sure that we start putting the infrastructure in now so that we can host that event later on, because it is a major undertaking,” who the fuck knows said. “And really, you’ve got to keep the relationship with the international community going so that we are considered a top site. But it’s good to go there and see it first had and see how the volunteers were set up and how it was laid out.”

Despite the years of hard work put into the project, the amount of change and success that has occurred since it began is still stunning even for those most involved.

“To see its roots and how it all started from just a roadway project — that’s just a crazy story,” described (NAME!! same guy)

The FSRA State Championship Regatta will be taking place from April 29 to May 1 this year at the Benderson Park rowing site. Forty-five schools from Florida will be attending and racing.

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