Nathan Benderson Park officials aim high with goals for their multi-million dollar project

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Triathletes gathered their gear from the staging area after completing the Florida International Triathlon on May 5.

With consistent sunshine and an almost tropical atmosphere, the city of Sarasota is an ideal place to showcase outdoor sports. Nathan Benderson Park, a local 600 acre sporting compound aside a 500-acre man-made lake that has been under construction since 2008, aims to become one of the largest venues for paddle sports, triathlons, and open water swimming in the southeast.

The complex at Nathan Benderson Park is expected to include an island where a boathouse, athletic training center, and grandstand will be accessible to spectators and athletes alike. Playground and fishing areas, as well as boat launching areas, are in the construction plans as well to make the park more accessible to the general public. Though still under heavy construction, the park has been the first sporting compound to become familiar to the rowing community of Florida. More than 20 rowing regattas that have been hosted at the park since its opening in 2009.

Rowers cooled down next to construction equipment after finishing the Florida Scholastic Rowing Sweeps State Championship Regatta.

First-year Garret Murto visited the course May 27 and 28 to support his sister at the Florida Scholastic Rowing Sweeps State Championship Regatta. Murto, who had the opportunity to frequent the course throughout his high school rowing career, acknowledged that venue had changed drastically since his time on the water.

“The course itself is not that much different than it has been for the past two years,” Murto said. “Where the boats are and where all the people who are attending the event are is on a completely different part. They’ve finally built the island that they’ve been talking about building for the past few years. That made the racing experience completely different.

Murto commented that during his experiences at the park spectators were placed on the opposite side of the lake, where they were forced to view the races from the high bank. During this arrangement the area for the main tents, where all the spectators were, was far removed from the finish line. This made viewing the results of the rowing races difficult.

Temporary signs direct rowers from their boat trailers to the dock at the Florida Scholastic Rowing Sweeps State Championship Regatta on May 28.

The island that is now sanctioned for spectators is just the beginning of the costly changes that are expected at the park. Signs at the racecourse course promise that this area that will later be referred to as “Regatta Island.” It is described as an “Olympic Village type setting” and will include luxuries like a “jumbotron.” During recent events, the island has been home to various food and clothing vendors, as well as a makeshift scoring and hospitality tent.

Hoping to expand the breadth of events at the park, Nathan Benderson Park hosted its first triathlon on Sunday, May 5 – the Florida International Triathlon. Previously held at Siesta Public Beach, the event marked the beginning of triathlon culture at the complex, and acted as a trial run for the park, which hopes to host an Olympic qualifying triathlon race in the upcoming years. Jeff Dyrdek, National Events Coordinator for the United States of American Triathlon Organization (USAT), said in an e-mail that Nathan Benderson Park seemed like a promising destination for a World Cup Triathlon, and that it might just be a matter of construction being finished.

Still, with more construction ahead, the park that is already poised to be a beacon for sporting competitions in the southern United States trudges forward in its plans for further expansion and renown. A sporting venue of this size will certainly draw a crowd, but the question remains: will the crowds match the multi million dollar budget brokered for the construction of the park, and the 20 million dollars worth of construction that has yet to be completed?

Parked cars were lined up for miles at the Regatta.

Vicki Vega, Vice President of Small Business and Innovation in the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, seems confident that years of construction that it has taken, and will continue to take, to bring to the plans for the park to fruition are worth the benefits that will be brought to the community.

“Sports and recreation are huge economic drivers for our region,” Vega said in an e-mail interview. “The rowing facility is a magnet that will create good jobs for our residents for years to come. It’s a strong stimulus for good growth while creating a welcoming community spirit. At the same time it provides athletes from near and far with a place to compete, it provides great leisure opportunities for residents of all ages.”

While Vega seems optimistic about the promise of further expansion of the park in the future, Murto remains skeptical about its organization.

“I feel like the course itself has great potential to be a great racing area,” Murto said. “It’s just a matter of if the area around the park could support a national event. I think what they’re planning to do in the shopping center next to the course is bring in more culinary diversity, I guess. It would make sense because those restaurants make a lot of money off of rowers. Parking is also a big thing. I’ve never been to another course of [Nathan Benderson Park’s] size, but the parking situation is also a mess. If you want a lot of people to be at your event you need to have parking for them.”

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