Organizations urge commissioners to focus on improvements for Siesta Public Beach

Siesta Public Beach's No.1 ranking over the past year has been cited as a major contributor to the big boost in the county's tourism revenue. Photo by Norman Schimmel

Three Siesta Key organizations have sent letters to the Sarasota County commissioners over the past week, urging them to proceed with plans to upgrade the Siesta Public Beach.

The letter-writing initiative was spurred by a discussion during the May 21 Presidents Council meeting on Siesta Key regarding an effort by the president of the Sarasota County Coalition of Neighborhood Associations and the president of Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government to seek the reallocation of funds designated for the Siesta beach to other beaches in the county.

The Presidents Council is a group of representatives from various island organizations. Members meet regularly to discuss issues of importance to all of them.

The only Siesta organization expected to do so that hasn’t weighed in thus far on the beach matter in a letter is the Chamber of Commerce. However, Mark Smith, the chamber president, told The Sarasota News Leader May 30 that the hold-up had been his architectural firm’s office renovations and his inability to use his computer equipment. He anticipated sending the chamber letter this week, he said, as his board concurred about the importance of the renovations at Siesta Public Beach.

“Frankly,” Smith said, “the facilities [at the Siesta beach] are an embarrassment … and we got the No. 1 beach ranking in spite of the facilities.”

Smith was referring to the honor bestowed on the beach in 2011 by Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman of Florida International University, also known as “Dr. Beach.”

Smith pointed out that the Siesta Public Beach also is Sarasota County’s top tourist attraction. He added, “It needs to be brought up to a level worthy of [that distinction] as well as the No. 1 beach ranking.”

Although Leatherman’s new Top 10 list of beaches appeared May 25, at the start of Memorial Day weekend, Leatherman maintains all of his No. 1 beaches on a list available to the public, Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County — formerly the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau — told Siesta Key Village Association members late this winter. Still, that continued ranking is dependent upon no problems arising to diminish the quality of the beach or its facilities, she pointed out.

In late April and early May, CONA President Lourdes Ramirez, who lives on Siesta Key, sent emails to Carolyn N. Brown, the county’s general manager of parks and recreation, about her interest in seeing county resources devoted to beaches other than the main one on Siesta.

Ramirez wrote, “There has been talk within some circles of our community of duplicating the success of Siesta Key Public Beach’s #1 status on another Sarasota Beach. It would be wonderful to be the home of 2 or more ‘#1’ or ‘top 10’ beaches in the USA. It seems that in focusing almost all our resources on Siesta beach, we will miss the opportunity to improve and promote another beach such as Casperson, Lido or Nokomis.”

In her May 1 email, Ramirez continued, “I am not one to put all my eggs in one basket so I suggest the County should consider 2 or 3 beach locations for improvements,” adding, “Siesta Beach is beautiful and will always be a main attraction for Sarasota.”

Catherine Antunes, the president of Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government and vice president of CONA, recently advocated more funding for South County beaches in a guest column in the North Port Sun. However, the newspaper responded in a May 19 editorial that while her criticism “was off the mark,” the newspaper had felt she “deserved a right to state her case ….”

Catherine Luckner, president of the Siesta Key Association, sent a letter May 23 to the County Commission, pointing out that she had discussed beach improvements with Carolyn Brown subsequent to the Presidents Council meeting. That discussion, Luckner wrote, “supports facts that south County beach improvements have been funded, initiated or completed.”

Most recently, Luckner added, “beautiful new facilities at Casperson Beach” had been completed.

Luckner wrote that in advance of the 2007 Sarasota County referendum on the additional penny surtax, one of the primary projects on the list proposed to be funded by that surtax revenue was the Siesta Public Beach project. However, Luckner noted, “To date, despite extensive planning, community review and … voter approval … Siesta Beach Park remains the only beach park without capital improvements.”

In his letter to the commissioners, Siesta Key Village Association President Russell Matthes wrote, “SKVA Business Owners are finally seeing a financial recovery from the recession. They feel that enhancing our World Class Beach by adding and upgrading the parks amenities will be vital towards continued sales growth.”

He added, “It is apparent that the majority of the stakeholders, residents and businesses agree on the scope of the project and view it as a priority. SKVA believes that by working together we can continue to make Siesta Public Beach one of [the nation’s No. 1] beach destinations.”

John Godin, president of the Siesta Key Condominium Council, also sent a letter to the commissioners to endorse the plan for improvements at Siesta Public Beach.

Even before those letters went out, Susan Danis, chairwoman of the Visit Sarasota County Board of Directors, had written the commissioners to offer strong support for all of the beach improvements to be completed at one time, instead of being spread over more than a decade. She pointed out in her May 14 letter, “Siesta Key Beach is the number one attraction for tourists to Sarasota County, and tourism is a strong driver of our local economy.”

Danis concluded by asking the commissioners to “make the investment in this beach that already that has paid tremendous dividends.

Christine Robinson, chairwoman of the County Commission, responded to Matthes, Luckner, Smith, Godin and others on the island in a May 27 email: “We have not made any changes to the Siesta Key Beach plan and will continue to watch for responsible funding options to speed up the project. Unfortunately, the state dealt us a blow this year with collecting disputed Medicaid billings against surtax which has affected Moody’s outlook on surtax borrowing. That is just one of the issues affecting our ability to borrow against these funds. I think I can speak for all of us in saying that we recognize the importance of Siesta Beach and we will continue to look for funding options.”

During their April 24 regular meeting, the commissioners remained divided over how to fund the Siesta Beach project. Commissioner Joe Barbetta urged his fellow board members to take advantage of lower construction and interest rates to move up the timetable for the improvements, which have been spread out through 2024, if the county is to use just surtax revenue.

Jim Harriott Jr., executive director of the county’s Public Works Department, and Steve Botelho, interim chief financial planning officer, told the commissioners they would be working on options for funding a number of major capital projects, including the Siesta Beach work. They promised to report back to the board when they had options ready for review.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect new information from Visit Sarasota County.