SARASOTA — Gov. Rick Scott initially said "no."
The $5 million state lawmakers set aside in 2011 for a Sarasota rowing center was deemed to have no statewide purpose, and Scott vetoed it. Dubbed a "turkey" by Florida TaxWatch, the rowing center stood out amid $615 million in spending that Scott axed that year. It was a defining moment for the new governor, a grand gesture to his tea party base and discontent with government spending.
"Special interests probably aren't happy with the tough choices I made," Scott said with a swipe of his veto pen, "but I am confident everyone can agree that funding for our children and students is more important than pleasing Tallahassee's special interests."
Fast forward to Thursday. Scott stood at Regatta Island at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota under a crowded tent teeming with local officials, rowing enthusiasts, business leaders and ESPN analyst Dick Vitale, who thanked him for coming around to support the $40 million rowing center.
In the past two years, Scott has allowed the project $10 million in state funding.
It's an about-face that he says came after boosters of the project convinced him of its statewide impact.
"They showed me the economics of it, and it just makes a lot of sense that we're going to get all those tourists here," he said. "And I'm very comfortable that on top of getting all those tourists here, they're going to spend money, and some of them are going to move their business here and buy some homes here."
But it's difficult to ignore that those pushing hardest for the state money have made sizable contributions to Scott's re-election efforts.
Benderson Development, owners of the park land, contributed $25,000 last year and another $100,000 in March to Scott's "Let's Get to Work" campaign. Both were made as the regatta money was getting negotiated into the state budget. If the rowing center ends up hosting the 2017 World Rowing Championships, among other events, the prospects for Benderson-owned land around the rowing center, which includes an upscale mall 1 mile away, will boom.
Lakewood Ranch developer Pat Neal also has a residential project nearby that could benefit. A former state senator who served in the 1970s and 1980s, Neal lobbied lawmakers for the regatta. On April 25, 2012, his companies contributed $35,000 to Scott's campaign. This year, one day before Benderson made its contribution, Neal's companies gave another $50,000.
And then there's $1,000 that Diane Bennett contributed to Scott on April 25, 2012. She's the wife of former state Sen. Mike Bennett, now the Manatee County supervisor of elections. As a state lawmaker from 2004-12, Bennett was key in securing the rowing center money.
This week, Bennett confirmed he's a consultant for Bright Future, a contractor that is designing electrical work for the rowing center and later will bid the work. Bennett said the contract could be worth from $200,000 to $2 million.
Asked if he was worried what it might look like if Bright Future wins the bid, Bennett replied: "Absolutely not. I think you're on a witch hunt."
Bennett, Neal and company president Randy Benderson joined Scott on Thursday to celebrate what had been a Benderson-owned borrow pit just five years ago. In his remarks, Scott praised them for pushing the project. He draped a medal around the neck of Benderson, awarding his family the Governor's Business Ambassador Award "for individuals that have had a dramatic impact on growing jobs in our state."
Scott shrugged off questions about whether the hefty campaign donations played a role in his reversal, immediately changing the subject to the project's potential for economic development and tourism.
For some in Scott's base, the rowing center is emblematic of how he has come to accept, and embrace, the pay-for-play status quo he once railed against.
"He hasn't been the watchdog of taxpayer monies we thought he was at the outset," said Henry Kelley, chairman of the Fort Walton Beach Tea Party. "A rowing center doesn't sound like something government should be involved in or something that people in other parts of the state should pay for."
Neal dismissed questions about whether he donated to Scott's campaign to sweeten the chances of Scott granting the money. A member of the TaxWatch board of directors for more than 20 years, Neal noted the project has evaded the "turkey" list since 2012 because the state money is contingent on the project meeting economic expectations. If it does not generate the projected sales tax revenue, Sarasota County must return it.
"I discussed that with the governor within the last one hour," Neal said shortly after the event.
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