The Florida World Aquatic Center opens in March 2013 at the current site of Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota.
Are you a beach bunny who digs sand?
I mean literally.
If you’re skilled at creating sand sculptures, I have a contest with your shovel written all over it. A Sand Sculpting Contest is drifting into Delray Beach as part of the town's two-day Fourth of July Celebration – and entry to the contest is free!
And the contest is just the tip of the sandbar.
The Fourth of July Celebration, July 3-4, 2012, includes entertainment, interactive activities, contests, food, drink and more than any human being could possibly list. And it’s open to the public and free, too!
Smells like fun to me!
Late Saturday afternoon in Pensacola. A spirited crowd has gathered along the waterfront. There is a pleasant breeze at what has become a popular vantage point for sailboats and gold-streaked summer skies.
But at this time, all that prettiness is background scenery to the city's newest attraction: a grass-and-dirt diamond that is home to minor-league baseball's Pensacola Blue Wahoos.
Playing their inaugural season, the Blue Wahoos are the Cincinnati Reds' Double-A affiliate. Under manager Jim Riggleman, a 12-year major league veteran, the team competes in the Southern League, which counts Chipper Jones and Alex Rodriguez as alumni.
Pensacola had been without professional baseball since 2010, when the Pensacola Pelicans moved to Amarillo, Texas.
When the new team needed a name, team owners took suggestions from the public and narrowed them to six, then asked fans to vote for their favorite.
"Other names considered were the Mullets, Aviators, Red Bones, Salty Dogs and Loggerheads," said Tommy Thrall, spokesman for the Blue Wahoos. "There were over 1,400 entries, and about 5,000 people voted on the final six."
Efforts to engage the potential fan base created a buzz that by all indications has not waned.
Steve and Linda Sorrell of Pensacola purchased Wahoos season tickets, a decision they say they would make again. "It is fun family entertainment and supports the community," says Linda.
Steve says he previously attended Pelicans games and Cincinnati Reds games, but prefers watching the Wahoos. "There is more action than in the big leagues," he said. "It keeps fans engaged."
The Wahoos' home field is clean and modern Pensacola Bayfront Stadium, which anchors Community Maritime Park, a multi-use facility that opened in 2012. With a capacity of just more than 5,000, the stadium is an intimate setting for watching professional baseball.
Among Southern League teams, the Wahoos have the smallest park but have recorded the best attendance for the first half of the 2012 season. They sold out 23 of their first 35 home games, including a May 11 contest against the Birmingham Barons that featured a special guest.
Local native Bubba Watson, who won golf's 2012 Masters, threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Many fans wore green to honor Watson, but typical Wahoos crowds are a sea of blue, with a striking logo of a large, sharp-toothed fish visible on T-shirts, hats and other gear.
"We already had to re-order many of the staple items in our team store," said Thrall in early June. "We sold through our entire hat inventory during the first month of the season."
Businesses in the vicinity of Community Maritime Park stand to thrive from Wahoos crowds, too. Palafox Street, a major artery through downtown with shops, restaurants and entertainment options, is a two-block walk from the stadium. Shuttles and pedicabs transport fans before and after the game.
Local officials hope to turn visitors into Wahoos fans, or at least lure them to Community Maritime Park, which also includes an amphitheater and retail storefronts.
Valeria Lento, spokeswoman for Visit Pensacola, does not have data on how many tourists attend Wahoos games, but she said: "Community Maritime Park as a whole and the presence of minor league baseball in the Pensacola Bay Area has certainly provided us with an opportunity to share Pensacola's story in a new way."
Lento said her organization gave away Blue Wahoos opening weekend tickets at a promotional event it hosted in Cincinnati. According to Thrall, the Wahoos provide game schedules and event lists to Pensacola-area hotels in hopes of drawing tourists to the park.
Tickets cost $5 for general admission access to open spaces like the Berm, a grassy area where picnic blankets are welcome. Fans purchasing $4 buckets of popcorn receive free refills for the entire season. Soft drink refills are $2 for fans presenting a pre-purchased $5 souvenir cup.
On Sundays, children can take part in Family Day activities. Saturday night games conclude with fireworks lighting up the sky over Pensacola Bay.
It's a nice view.
Pensacola Blue Wahoos
What: Minor League Baseball affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds.
Where: Pensacola Bayfront Stadium, 301 W Main St., Pensacola
When: Season runs April to September. 70 home games each season.
Sarasota – Aquatic athletes from around Florida, the nation and the world will make a bigger splash in Sarasota starting next year.
The multimillion-dollar Florida World Aquatic Center being built at Nathan Benderson Park is expected to become one of the world’s top sites for such sports as rowing, triathlon, canoe and kayak racing, paddleboarding – and the ever-colorful dragon boat regattas, officials say.
Under construction now, the center will be finished in March 2013, said Paul Blackketter, the SunCoast Nature Aquatic Association’s chief operating officer. The association will oversee the race courses and the lake at Nathan Benderson.
"We will be one of the top five venues in the world," said Blackketter, noting that the 2,000-meter rowing course will offer the only tournament FISA venue in North America. FISA is rowing’s international governing body.
Blackketter also is executive director for planning at Benderson Development Corp., whose founder, Nathan Benderson, is the man for whom the park is named.
The new center’s finishing date in March coincides with its first international event: a triathlon. USA Triathlon is contemplating holding its collegiate national championship at the center in 2015 and 2016.
Other impressive contests lay ahead. The U.S. national masters rowing championships and an international dragon boat regatta are coming in 2014.
"Our goal is to host the world rowing championships in 2017," Blackketter said. "It’s like bringing Olympic-level rowing to Florida, with 80 to 90 countries participating.
"We haven’t been selected yet, but we’re working on it."
Dragon boats will doubtless prove to be crowd-pleasers. They boast an ancient heritage, originating in China, but national and international competition began emerging in the 1970s. Florida has several dragon boat clubs and festivals including those in Miami, Tampa, the Florida Keys, Punta Gorda and Tavares, for example.
Last year, Tampa was host to the World Dragon Boat Championships, which drew about 2,000 athletes from 17 countries chasing the sport’s most prestigious title.
The boats typically carry a crew of 22, are about 40 feet long and are usually decorated with a dragon’s head and tail. A drummer pounds out the rhythm for paddlers.
The World Aquatic Center will include a 30-acre island with a boathouse and grandstand – and the venue will not be solely for "name" events.
"Our objective is to have a major amateur event every weekend of the year," Blackketter said. "Even paddleboard races."
Now, heavy equipment rumbles near the lake, which is near the Sarasota-Manatee County line just a few hard strokes from Interstate 75. Floating course markers are visible on the water. Several rowing competitions have been held on the lake since 2009, including scholastic meets and the annual Sarasota Invitational, which earlier this year attracted more than 1,500 rowers from a dozen states.
"It’s been growing exponentially," Blackketter said. He said he has become "totally engulfed" in the sport of rowing. "I just love it. I love everything it represents."
Among the elements it represents is tourist dollars. Economic studies suggest about $209 million will be generated for the local economy annually, based on a projected 750,000 new tourists every year.
The Legislature earmarked $5 million this year for the center, and Gov. Rick Scott approved the expenditure. In addition, Sarasota County is kicking in $20 million in tourist tax money, Manatee County is adding another $1.5 million and Benderson Development Corp. another $2 million.
"It is definitely going to be an attractor for us in the realm of sports tourism," said Jason Puckett, sports director for the Sarasota County Sports Commission.
"Anyone with flat land can build a baseball or soccer field. Not everyone has a 400-acre lake that can host these kinds of water sports. I think it sets us apart from those other destinations," Puckett said.