How Sarasota made a vacation destination into a viable elite sporting venue

Thoughtful planning and investment in sport facilities will bring much more than a single elite-level competition. It can transform an entire town.

How Sarasota made a vacation destination into a viable elite sporting venue

Nathan Benderson Park, Sarasota, Florida hosted the 2017 World Rowing Championships

Debate is inevitable regarding the economic viability of hosting international competition following Olympic competition in Pyeongchang.

After all, the Olympics are arguably the pinnacle of international competition and often the only world-wide sporting event many audiences in the USA and abroad tune into outside of their favorite sport(s). However, hosting large international sporting events usually comes with a high cost as investment is needed to build quality facilities, and questions may arise about whether it is worth it, especially when the sport facilities often become abandoned soon after the event.

So how does a destination or city avoid empty and decrepit structures following international sport? The answer is a combination of continued investment that retains and builds interest for future competitions and allows access for the local community to utilize the site’s resources. A case study for success is just a few miles from the sunny beaches of Sarasota, Florida.

Utilizing what’s already there

In 1994 the World Rowing Championships was held for the first time in the USA in Indianapolis, Indiana. At that time, Sarasota, Florida had a strong arts scene with world-class beaches, but it did not have much to offer for a world competition. But a year later, Sarasota County would purchase a lake off Interstate 75. Over the decade and a half following, this county-owned facility would become Nathan Benderson Park after an agreement between local government and an area developer to invest in the park’s enhancement.

Testing the waters

The park’s 600 acres of mixed-use space flowed with opportunity. A master plan was developed and a non-profit organization was created to manage the park. Four rowing regattas were held in 2009 at Nathan Benderson Park, attracting roughly 30,000 spectators and contributing US$4.5 million to the local economy. Projections indicated once a master development plan for the park was completed, the facility could generate US$12.5 million by hosting ten regattas annually.

Building a world-class facility

After seeing the initial return, a new development plan was established that included a 2,000 metre sprint rowing course, a paved five kilometre loop and a five-storey finishing tower to make the site viable for international competition. To achieve all this, the park received funds through state, local and private financial support. Two years later the International Rowing Federation (FISA), the world rowing authority officially recommended Nathan Benderson Park to host the 2017 World Rowing Championships.

The stands at the 2017 World Rowing Championships held in Nathan Benderson Park, Sarasota, Florida

The stands at the 2017 World Rowing Championships held in Nathan Benderson Park, Sarasota, Florida

Beyond one competition

The park’s international competition Curriculum Vitae includes Modern Pentathlon World Cup Final (2014), Modern Pentathlon World Cup (2015), UIPM Biathle and Triathle World Championships (2016), World Rowing Championships (2017), ITU Triathlon World Cup (2017), and the World Rowing Masters Regatta (2018). This remarkable record of diverse competition provides a level of continued interest and investment in the park and local organizations have taken notice. Area organisations such as Mote Aquarium have even initiated multi-million dollar plans of their own to build a new aquarium within Nathan Benderson Park.

Free and utilized daily

The park is designed for both elite athletes and the residents of the surrounding communities. A running and biking trail encircles the park and the water is accessible by canoe, kayak or stand-up paddleboard. There are learn to row classes, local 5k races, dragon boat paddling events and even a circus held each winter. Nearby are hotels, shops and dining districts, offering more things to do for residents and visitors.

Based on this formula, it takes local buy-in, political will, thoughtful planning and follow-through to extend the life of a venue beyond a single event. That might mean more time and investment, but the pay-off is worth it. In the 2016/17 season, the facility generated US$50 million in economic impact to the area. About US$18.6 million of this was produced by the World Rowing Championships, with the remaining coming from 45 other events and training trips from 50 rowing teams

What’s more is Nathan Benderson Park isn’t the only world-class facility in Sarasota today. Selby Aquatic Center hosted the Pan Am Masters Swimming Championships in 2013. In 2016, Sarasota BMX track held the UCI Supercross World Cup. Even the bay of Sarasota will be host to an international event for the 2018 F-18 Sailing World Championships. The number and quality of these sporting events has transformed the services provided by area hotels to better understand the international visitor and the needs of elite athletes including providing space for specialized equipment, training caterers regarding athlete’s diets, and ensuring staff create a welcoming environment that embraces diversity.

Learn more about Sarasota County’s sport venue story.