I-Team story prompts state investigation into Sarasota row park

A state investigation is underway after the I-Team uncovered millions of your tax dollars showed little results at the recent World Rowing Championships in Sarasota.

More than $30 million in taxpayer money was collected to get Nathan Benderson Park ready for the big event.

"I think you uncovered some great things", says State House Rep. and future House speaker Chris Sprowls.

He wants answers after seeing the lack of results on what was supposed to be a public-private partnership to build up the Sarasota row park.

RELATED: I-Team: Controversy behind Sarasota Rowing Park

Reporter: "What concerns you most when seeing this?"
Rep. Sprowls: "This public investment has been significant, you haven't seen the return, we don't know really what the private investment was. So I think there's more unanswered questions in this project."

More than $30 million in state and local taxpayer money, and Nathan Benderson Park looks far different from what it was supposed to look like when it was proposed 4 years ago. The proposal included a finish row tower costing $5 million, a state of the art $10 million boathouse, and other structures that could benefit the park well after the event.

"And you can see there is one building not 3,4, or 5," says Pat Rounds a concerned taxpayer.

Bill Zoller another taxpayer says, "I mean they dug a hole. And they keep wanting public money to bail them out."

Current House Speaker Richard Corcoran is demanding accountability. He sent a letter to Sarasota's county administrator and SANCA, a non profit created to promote and manage the park.

The speaker wants all financial records, contracts, and several other documents for an investigation by the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee.

Rep Sprolws says, "We anxiously await the opportunity to look at those documents."

Sarasota's county administrator sent a letter saying they will comply with the speakers request.

Rep. Sprowls adds, "People work really hard for their money and they expect when the government uses their money it's for a true public purpose and I think we find too often that that's not the case and we're gonna push back."

We sent a link to our original investigation to every county commissioner in Sarasota and Manatee counties. Only one got back in an email, Manatee commissioner Betsy Benac.

She responds, "honestly I was so confused by the misinformation in your story - I thought it was written last year. Was it meant to be current information?"

She provided no additional information as to what she meant. But after digging we found she used to be a senior project manager for Benderson Development.

Randy Benderson owns Benderson Development and donated the park to Sarasota County. He also runs the Nathan Benderson Community Park Foundation which was established to raise private money for the park. Benderson also owns a lot of land surrounding the park, that has a hotel, restaurants, and a large shopping mall.

UPDATE: While officials at SANCA told the I-Team Benderson "donated the park to Sarasota County", County deed records reveal the park property was transferred in 1995 from APAC-Florida Inc.

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Jarrod Holbrook is an Emmy and AP Award-winning Investigative Reporter for the ABC Action News I-Team. Do you have a story idea? Contact Jarrod on FacebookTwitter, or via email at jarrod.holbrook@wfts.com.

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