Sarasota Builds a Mecca for Rowers and Triathletes

Several rowing competitions have been held in Sarasota's Nathan Benderson Park, including scholastic meets and the annual Sarasota Invitational.

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.
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"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.

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