Rowing facility uses events to demonstrate its worth to state lawmakers

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SARASOTA - Supporters of a rowing facility in Sarasota County say that state lawmakers should set aside millions of dollars for it. They say it's worth it, even for people who have no interest in rowing.

The best college rowers in Florida have come to what they call the best rowing facility in Florida to compete this weekend. Never mind the muddy set-up area and the frequent beeping from backing construction equipment.

“It's been a whirlwind of difference,” says Cathleen Vogelgesang, a junior rower at Stetson University. “It's like night and day since my freshman year.” Stetson sent about 40 people to this two-day event. Jacksonville University sent about 60.

Florida, Florida State and South Florida sent teams. Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne sent a crew of 45. Assistant coach Jimmy Woodard says he first came here in 2009. "Trailers were back in the woods a little bit. And that was it. There was a dock and a body of water."

When the rowers arrive for races, there is some assembly required for their boats, so they can forgive Nathan Benderson park if its construction has not completed. As long as the former mining pit stays full of water, they can race in the meantime.

"It's very important," says Paul Blackketter, president of Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates, which manages the park. "It maintains the momentum."

And shows Florida lawmakers that the $5 million that they budgeted for this place last year pays off already, and helps as its backers plea for another $5 million this year.

“This is a public asset,” Blackketter says. “It serves the public on a 24/7 basis. It also makes a huge economic impact.”

And how is that? Remember all those people from all those places here? Most of the 13 teams here will also fill motel rooms tonight. They will fill their stomachs too. "If these big races keep coming and coming, there's going to be a lot of revenue coming to the area," Mitchell says.