Crystal Classic to return to Siesta beach Nov. 8-12

Fort Myers Beach event’s schedule no longer a conflict

“Nightmares” took first place in the 2011 Siesta Key Crystal Classic. It was created by the team of Dan Belcher and Karen Fralich. Photos by Norman Schimmel

Brian Wigelsworth saw it as an opportunity to show his fellow master sandsculptors that the Siesta Key beach was the best place in the world for a major competition.

Siesta business people saw it as a big potential boost for the economy at a traditionally slow time of year for tourists.

And all the planners saw it as a means of supporting Mote Marine’s efforts to protect and help sea turtles. Proceeds go to Mote’s Sea Turtle Rescue Program.

Their goals were achieved and exceeded in 2010, when Siesta Key hosted its first Crystal Classic Master Sandsculpting Competition.

Kevin Cooper, executive director of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, told The Sarasota News Leader that the impact on the local economy last year was about $2 million.

From an estimated 23,000 visitors in 2010, the event grew to about 33,000 in 2011, according to organizers. Attendance this year is expected to exceed 40,000.

With their eyes on the calendar, the organizers are bustling to line up more sponsors and running down their details list to create another banner event when the third Crystal Classic opens on Nov. 8.

And while some fretfulness had surfaced at the prospect of the 26th Annual American Sand Sculpting Championship at Fort Myers Beach overlapping this year with the Crystal Classic, those worries scattered like sand to the sea when the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce announced Aug. 7 that that event was being pushed back.

The Crystal Classic will end on Nov. 12; the Fort Myers Beach event will begin Nov. 16.

A new collaboration of partners in the Fort Myers Beach event was behind the date change, according to a news release.

“We’re very excited about that,” Cheryl Gaddie, co-chairwoman of the third Crystal Classic, told the News Leader in an interview.

Although the date change probably won’t have an impact on the make-up of the teams that appear on Siesta Beach, Gaddie said, the fact that the two locations would not be competing for tourists was a big relief.

The people behind the scenes

Just as the Fort Myers Beach event’s partnership arrangements have been revamped this year, the Crystal Classic has undergone a change in leadership, Gaddie explained.

The Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce was integrally involved in the event from the outset, she said. However, “after two years, everyone realized it was a much larger event with more potential than volunteers could handle properly.”

Siesta residents and chamber volunteers Bob and Eileen Parkinson “helped to form the event into what it is,” Gaddie added, but the chamber staff has taken on the primary role this year of handling the details.

Gaddie’s co-chairwoman is Maria Bankemper, incoming chairwoman of the chamber. Gaddie is the immediate past chairwoman of the chamber.

Bankemper is the general manager of the Best Western-Gateway Siesta Key Hotel.

Both of them, Gaddie pointed out, had been very much involved with planning for the event the two previous years.

“Maria Bankemper and Cheryl Gaddie are just incredible,” Wigelsworth told the News Leader.

Over the decades, Gaddie added, Siesta has seen big events founded, then just disappear. “We just felt that this was such an important event, we couldn’t afford to not have it,” she said of the Crystal Classic.

An organization called the Siesta Beach Festival Inc. holds the trademark for the event. Its board members are Dr. Kumar Mahadevan, president of Mote Marine Laboratory; Sarasota County Commissioner Joe Barbetta; Sheriff Tom Knight; Bob Parkinson; Steve Queior, president and CEO of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce; Mark Smith of Smith Architects, the current Siesta Chamber chairman; and Sarasota attorney Jim Syprett.

The Siesta Chamber made a proposal to that board to take the reins of the 2012 Crystal Classic, she said, and the proposal was accepted.

“No one knows the island the way we know the island,” she pointed out of the chamber members and staff.

The ‘masters’

“Back to School Nightmare” by John Gowdy and Brad Coll took third place in 2011.

Siesta resident Brian Wigelsworth is one of about 200 master sandsculptors in North America. As founder of the Crystal Classic, he is the direct connection with the people who come to the community to create breathtakingly intricate designs in sand.

This year, Wigelsworth is especially excited, he said, because all seven cast members of the Travel Channel’s “Sand Masters” show will be participating. Asked if landing the whole group was a real coup for the Classic, he replied, “Very much so.”

He added, “Most of them have been here at one time or another. … They just love our sand.”

Wigelsworth never hesitates to point out, “We have the finest natural beach sand for sandsculpting in the world.”

Most beaches have lots of shell in their sand, he said, but the 99.9% quartz sand on Siesta makes it perfect for sandsculpting.

He’s competed in places, he said, where the sand has so much clay in it that it appears brown, “and you get filthy dirty” working in it.

Another seven of the sculptors this year will be from The Netherlands, Wigelsworth said. That nation, he noted, boasts “some incredible sandsculptors.”

The Netherlands and Italy “lead the way” in these competitions, he added. Both stress art early in school, he pointed out.

Altogether, 12 teams are expected to vie for the prizes in this year’s Crystal Classic, he said: Judges’ Choice, Sculptors’ Choice and People’s Choice, along with an award from Mote Marine.

Audience members pay 25 cents per vote for the People’s Choice award, he added, with all the money going to Mote’s Sea Turtle Rescue Program.

Among the judges this year will be sculptor Jack Dowd, artist Tim Jaeger of Sarasota, who originated the s/ART/q art shows; Mote artist Debbie Dart; and fashion photographer Giovanni Lunardi.

Most sandsculpting events are judged just by sculptors, Wigelsworth said. “I’d rather have [the Crystal Classic] judged by artists of all different media.”

Additionally, Wigelsworth is seeking experienced artists interested in becoming “apprentices” in sandsculpting, who can help the master carvers create logos on the beach for the event sponsors.

The 2011 Crystal Classic logos were sculpted by members of the competitive teams.

“If I can get some Ringling [College of Art and Design] students,” he said, “I’d be really happy.”

Anyone interested in helping out may email him at

Making it happen

Both Gaddie and Wigelsworth stress the importance of sponsors to the success of each Crystal Classic — through in-kind donations as well as monetary contributions. “We’re always looking for new sponsors,” Wigelsworth said.

Gaddie said she believes all Siesta businesses should understand the value of collaborating on the Crystal Classic.

The tens of thousands of people who come to Siesta for the event, she said, are very likely to “come again and again,” providing even more of a boost for the economy.

“I understand a lot of people don’t have the ability to be involved” in the Crystal Classic from a financial standpoint, she added; however, “a lot of people give more than they have to give.”

Gaddie also stressed that residents benefit as well as the businesses. A vibrant community keeps property values high, she pointed out.

“One of the things I really believe is that Siesta Key is a blessed island,” she said, adding that overall, business has been rebounding well in the past couple of years. “How many places have not come back from the huge economic downturn?”

Anyone interested in becoming a sponsor of the 2012 Crystal Classic may call the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce at 349-3800, email or visit