News Section: Opinion
It's Time for More Private Money at Rowing Facility
The concerns regarding Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates, the non-profit organization responsible for operating the ambitious rowing facility venture near the border of Sarasota and Manatee Counties, raise a big red flag for a project that includes a huge public investment and benefits politically connected developers.
While SANCA has rectified the missing financial reports needed to regain the ability to solicit private donations, taxpayers now need to be concerned with whether or not they actually will.
SANCA President and CEO Paul Blackketter has taken ownership for the group's failure to respond to repeated requests from the state for financial documents from 2012, which led to SANCA being denied registration as a charitable organization, but at that point, what else could he do?
The bigger concern for taxpayers is that the group's lax efforts in that department seem to correspond with their lax efforts for raising money from donors and an over-reliance on taxpayer funding.
The project's costs have continuously escalated, a phenomenon not uncommon when the public is footing the bill. Starting at just a few million dollars in its initial scope, by 2014 Nathan Benderson Park was projected to cost over $40 million, and the latest estimates are as high as $52 million.
So far, nearly all of the money has come from taxpayers, with public funding from both counties and the state now totaling over $30 million (Sarasota County is by far the largest investor at nearly $20 million).
According to a report in the Sarasota Herald Tribune, the group's only sources of private funds have been the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, which gave $100,000 in 2013, and the Benderson family, who've given less than $500,000 to the non-profit since 2010, for the park that bares the name of the late commercial development mogul Nate Benderson, and is seen as a major coup for Benderson Development's extensive surrounding properties, including the Mall at University Town Center, slated to open in October.
The family did give a million dollars to Sarasota County for the naming rights before SANCA was established. The report also says that Benderson gave SANCA a little over a million dollars in in-kind contributions, most of which went toward paying Blackketter.
SANCA says they are poised to begin a major fundraising effort this summer and for the sake of the taxpayers, I hope that's the case, especially since the group says that hosting the 2017 World Rowing Championships will require $22 million and are already asking the state for half of that.
Those sort of efforts to secure public funding have been much easier to identify. After former Florida Senator and current Manatee County SOE Mike Bennett was able to secure $5 million for the project in 2011 and Governor Scott vetoed the item as part of what he framed as an assault on special interest pork projects, the biggest supporters of the rowing facility opened up their checkbooks.
Randy Benderson gave the governor’s PAC $100,000 in 2013, after donating $25,000 in 2012. Pat Neal, whose Neal Communities is the biggest residential developer in the area surrounding the mall and park, gave over $58,000 in 2013 through various interests, after giving the PAC $35,000 in 2012.
That seemed to warm the governor on the values of the project. Scott not only approved the funding in both of those budgets, but even showed up in Sarasota to celebrate the facility, which seemingly went from pork to "economic engine" overnight, at least in the governor's eyes. That's a pretty big ROI and you can imagine why supporters might be more eager to write much smaller checks to pols in the hope that many times more will be returned to them in the form of taxpayer funds.
Once you consider that local governments are also moving toward a complex, $60 million solution to the incapacity of the existing interstate exit next to the projects, it becomes more difficult to see the public getting the same sort of bang for their buck as Benderson and Neal might.
Everyone hopes that both projects deliver the sort of "economic impact" that will pay for their investments many times over, but when taxpayers are put on the hook for such a massive (and constantly growing) price tag, hope isn't enough. At this point, more needs to be done to see that those who stand to benefit most, have more skin in the game. Some serious private investment would be a good first step.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.
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