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Business Observer Friday, Jun. 25, 2010 10 years ago

Row, row, row your revenue

Paul Blackketter's job as a project manager for Manatee County-based Benderson Development has turned him into something of a boat man.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Paul Blackketter is an Army man, a veteran of the Iraq War.

But his job as a project manager for Manatee County-based Benderson Development has turned Blackketter into something of a boat man.

Specifically, Blackketter is now a global expert on the cottage industry of regattas and youth and collegiate rowing races. In fact, Blackketter has traveled everywhere from California to New Jersey to England, where he attended the renowned Henley Royal, to study the industry.

The source of Blackketter's passion: Nathan Benderson Park, a 600-acre park in north Sarasota County with a 1.1-mile rowing course. Blackketter is in charge of what could ultimately be a $25 million public-private partnership designed to improve the park and surrounding area. It's an effort that includes building boathouses, adding docks and expanding the course to the international rowing standard of 1.25 miles, or 2,000 meters.

“We could make this one of the best rowing facilities in the world,” says Blackketter. “The marketing aspect for what this could bring to the area is unprecedented.”

Blacketter's rowing enthusiasm, shared by Benderson Development executives, also has a bevy of local officials aflutter with the potential of a new multimillion-dollar economic engine that could be a buffer to the recession. Sarasota County already invested $5 million into the project and could commit more funds over the next year. Other funding for the project could come from Manatee County and federal government stimulus grants.

The park has already hosted a few regattas, including the Florida Scholastic Rowing Championship, that were deemed a big success. For one, the hotels, restaurants and shops around the area — many of which are in Benderson properties — saw a boost in sales and traffic.

Plus, many of the participants spread the word in the rowing community that Sarasota has a good chance to make the park a legitimate player. Blackketter even hopes the park can land the NCAA Rowing Championships, events that have been held in Sacramento and suburban Philadelphia.

The idea to turn the park into a rowing Mecca came in late 2005 from Randy Benderson, whose father, Nathan Benderson, founded the development firm in 1950. The company was working on a road extension project for a potential mall and shopping center near the park when Randy Benderson proposed the rowing idea.

The idea turned into a $1 million investment from the company, funds used initially on research, permitting and planning.

“It was a risk,” Blackketter told the East County Observer, the Review's sister paper, last December. “[But] it was the right thing to do.”

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