I-Team: Controversy behind Sarasota Rowing Park

Posted at 10:42 PM, Sep 22, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-22 23:25:44-04

Starting this weekend thousands are expected to head out to Sarasota for the World Rowing Championship competition.

The I-Team discovered getting ready for the event has cost taxpayers millions and they won't be getting everything that was promised.

"This is not the way this was envisioned", says Pat Rounds a concerned taxpayer and Sarasota county resident.

Bill Zoller, another concerned resident tells us, " I mean they dug a hole, and they keep wanting public money to bail them out."

More than $30 million in state and local money, all going into Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota as part of efforts over the last few years to get ready for the World Rowing Championships.

Four years ago (2013) when it was proposed, the county owned park was supposed to include several structures that could benefit the park well after the event, including a finish row tower costing $5 million, a state of the art $10 million boathouse, etc.




But currently it looks far from the finish line. As Zoller describes it, "Well there's a whole lot of nothing right now compared to what we should be seeing."

The finish tower just finished construction. However the $10 million boathouse and some of the other structures haven't broken ground.

"And you can see there is one building not 3,4, or 5," Rounds explains while walking by the park.

This complex is supposed to be a public-private partnership. Sarasota and Manatee counties partnered with SANCA (Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates Inc), a non-profit created to promote and manage the park.

Taxpayers think the counties and SANCA have failed.

Zoller says, "I don't think they have, they have failed! It's a fact.  If they had not failed we would have the grandstands, the boathouse and all of the facilities there and that's a big failure."

"Essentially what was promised has not been delivered and it's been the private part of this partnership that has not kept its promises," says Rounds.

One of the people in charge of raising that private money is Randy Benderson, head of Benderson Development.

His company owns the land next to the park that includes a large shopping mall, and restaurants.
"Certainly Benderson stands to gain from any traffic generated from events at the park," explains Rounds.

But that is not the only way Benderson could benefit from the rowing complex.

He also has a construction agreement for the park with Sarasota County.

He has a strong ally in Manatee county's elections supervisor Mike Bennett. Bennett, a former state senator, is a board member on Benderson's community park fundraising foundation. In January Bennett used his connections in the legislature to ask for $5 million.

Here's what he told the delegation on video: "$5 million will complete our boathouse. We have raised about $15 million from private money."

He says they've raised $15 million and is asking for an additional $5 million, which raises another question with taxpayers, because the boathouse only cost $10 million.

Rounds says, "I've seen evidence of $5 million being raised to build a finish tower but the other $10 million has not been accounted for, despite requesting that information."

Zoller has put in several public records requests as well, "And what's been very frustrating is several of us have made efforts through formal requests to SANCA, the county commission, to anybody involved for an accounting of the private funds that have been raised."

After refusing to talk to us, we caught up with Bennett at his public office in Manatee.

Reporter: Can we talk to you?
Bennett: Why do you think I'm standing here?

We asked Bennett several times if he can account for the $15 million raised in private funds.

Bennett: "How many times do I have to tell you I don't know?"
Reporter: "You're asking for $5 million in public money, you don't know?"
Bennett: "I did. I did. And you keep asking the same stupid question time after time after time."
Reporter: "It's not a stupid question sir it's taxpayer money."
Bennett: "I'm done with you."
Reporter: "But you're not answering the question sir."
Bennett: "I'm not going to answer anymore questions."

We asked for a list of donors to prove they raised $15 million on the private side. He refused to give it to us.

In explaining his frustration Zoller tells us, "this is a very expensive big idea with public money and if it's such a good idea why has the private money not come?"

Bottom line is, what was once promised and proposed isn't visible today. even though taxpayers have already handed over $30 million.
Rounds says, "I would want the public to seek out their state legislators and to seek out the county commission and to ask for accountability and demand the private sector deliver as promised."

Folks with the Benderson Park Foundation didn't want to interview with us and refused to let us see their list of donors to verify the private money was raised.

Randy Benderson never got back to us.