The Manatee-Sarasota area is making a sprint to the finish line in becoming a mecca for rowing in the United States.
Paul Blacketter, project manager for Benderson Development Company, briefed the Board of County Commissioners last week on the near completion of a 2,000-meter rowing course at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota that has the national rowing community buzzing. It's also spurred the construction of a training facility at Fort Hamer Park in East Manatee that will host college teams from Harvard and Notre Dame later this month.
That combination is expected to soon draw 10-15 regattas and races to the two counties with an economic impact of $25 million a year, officials said.
Sarasota hosted four regattas in 2010 that drew about 30,000 attendees and an estimated $4.5 million -- and that was before the expected lengthening of the Benderson Park sprint course to 2,000 meters, the standard for world-class rowing. Once that project is complete next year, Sarasota will bid for larger events such as the NCAA championships and Pan American Games.
The Manatee River could be the site of a four-day head race event, which would stretch for 5,000 meters along the Riverwalk in downtown Bradenton and could draw up to 100,000 people to the area about a year from now.
"The stars are aligned," said Manatee County planner Dave Gustafson, "and everything is moving forward at a high rate of speed."
The developments have drawn the attention of some of the rowing community's biggest names. Bob Whitford, facilities manager and rowing and paddling coordinator for the Sacramento State Aquatics Center, was hired to oversee the Sarasota course design. And Harvard coach Harry Parker, considered a legend in the collegiate rowing ranks, is bringing his crew to Manatee County next month.
The Fort Hamer facility has also made it possible for Palmetto High to field the county's first rowing club. About 50 students have already expressed interest, Palmetto Athletic Director Kenny Ansbro said.
Charlie Bishop, the county's director of property management, said a dock will be in place at Fort Hamer by Dec. 20 and a new rowing storage facility erected by Dec. 31. The project included cooperation from the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and various contractors from Manatee County.
County commissioner John Chappie said he's excited about the possibility of the area becoming a rowing hot spot.
"This is a tremendous opportunity," Chappie said. "Everybody's going to see what Manatee and Sarasota counties are all about."