Sarasota-Manatee Rowing Facility Seeks Millions in Additional Subsidies

Advocates for a Sarasota-Manatee County rowing facility want $2.5 million in state taxpayer subsidies, just a year after they secured $5 million in Florida taxpayer subsidies by promising state legislators the facility would generate $25 million per year in economic benefits.

The push to require Florida taxpayers to subsidize the multi-million dollar rowing facility began in 2011, when then-Sen. Mike Bennett (R-Bradenton) filed legislation to require state taxpayers to pay $500,000 to $5 million of the costs for the proposed rowing facility. Bennett claimed the subsidies would more than pay for themselves, asserting the rowing facility would generate $25 million each year in economic benefits. The legislature approved the subsidies but Gov. Rick Scott vetoed them.

In 2012, Bennett again shepherded a bill through the Florida legislature, requiring Florida taxpayers to hand over $5 million in subsidies to the rowing facility. This time, Scott withheld his veto pen and the bill became law.

Despite the promises that the facility would pay for itself, rowing facility advocates now seek millions of dollars in additional taxpayer subsidies just a year after securing their generous $5 million subsidy. Legislation championed by Rep. Ray Pilon (R-Sarasota) calls for $2.5 million in additional taxpayer subsidies this year.

In a troubling development, advocates for the rowing facility report they are $20 million short of the private donations necessary to complete the facility. If the private donations do not materialize, taxpayers will have paid millions of dollars for an uncompleted facility or will be required to pay millions of dollars in additional subsidies to complete the project.

Rowing facility advocates already squeezed $20 million out of Sarasota County taxpayers for the facility, even before hitting up the legislature for additional funding this year.

While the facility sinks deeper and deeper into subsidies and shortfalls, facility leaders plunge full-speed ahead on new spending projects. Facility leaders recently announced they will submit a bid to host the 2017 World Rowing Championships. Donn Patchen, director of communications for Sarasota County, told Media Trackers Florida the cost to submit the preliminary bid, including application fees, was $13,400. Additionally, another bid fee of $56,600 is due when facility leaders submit a final bid in May.

“The May 2013 Final bid submission and payment of submission fee was split between Visit Sarasota County (VSC) and Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB),” Patchen told Media Trackers Florida. Sarasota and Manatee County tax dollars fund Visit Sarasota County and the Bradenton Area CVB.

In addition to the bid fees, which are non-refundable even if rowing officials reject the Sarasota-Manatee bid, it will cost an additional $6 million to host the Championships. Sarasota and Manatee County elected officials already promised facility leaders a combined $2 million in additional subsidies to defray the hosting costs. Facility leaders will likely petition the county officials or the Florida legislature for additional state taxpayer subsidies to cover the rest.

Padden told Media Trackers Florida that international rowing officials will rule on the Sarasota-Manatee bid by the end of the year.

“The FISA [International Rowing Association] Council will make a recommendation to the FISA Congress on August 2, 2013. The FISA Congress will vote on the award of the bid on September 2, 2013 in South Korea. The FISA Congress does not have to accept the recommendation of the FISA Council,” said Patchen.

Padden claimed 130 million people will watch the 2017 Championships, which is the equivalent of  more than 40% of the total population in the United States.

The park, Nathan Benderson Park, is a collaboration among Sarasota and Manatee counties and private developer Benderson Development Co.

The park is currently hosting some of the events its proponents promised, but facility leaders say they must undertake further construction to provide the amenities necessary to host events such as the 2017 Championships.

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