Siesta Seen

Chamber makes its $50,000 fireworks goal; FDOT renews funding commitment for the Breeze; July Fourth cleanup plans underway on various fronts; cause of pilot whale’s stranding still a mystery; Sheriff Knight glad his South Midnight Pass training facility will have a good new use; South Siesta Renourishment Project wins more state money; Dr. Beach’s No. 1 announcement goes viral, indeed; 2017 Crystal Classic to feature lighted sculptures on two nights; and Best Western Plus earns big honor from TripAdvisor

Image courtesy Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce

With eight days to go before the big event, the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce achieved what Executive Director Ann Frescura called its “pie-in-the-sky” goal of $50,000 to pay for the spectacular July Fourth fireworks show at the beach.

The last donations came in on June 26, she told The Sarasota News Leader in a telephone interview the following day.

When she left work on June 22, she said, the total was at $45,000, so she felt pretty good about hitting the goal. Then, over the weekend, she continued, a couple of contributors who had made verbal commitments came through with their money.

To reach the mark well before the last minute, she acknowledged, is a cause for celebration.

Frescura was quick to point to the determination of the fundraising committee members and Chamber directors who “worked behind the scenes.”

What was especially encouraging, Frescura said, was that “we had some new sponsors this year,” as well as help from some people who had not offered any money toward the fireworks show in the recent past. Those added into the mix with what she called the “standard anchors”: the people who always come through with assistance. Of the latter, she said, “God bless ’em. They pretty much support everything on the Key.”

“So now we’re just focusing on the logistics,” Frescura pointed out, such as the setup at the beach for the sponsors and the supplies for light refreshments and free beverages the Chamber will offer them.

She already had undertaken the final walk on the beach with county staff members to ensure the Chamber has its perimeter outlined for its party. She added that she appreciates the “extra cautious” attitude of Sarasota County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department employees, who want to ensure the safety of all the spectators.

“Now we’re ready to put on the best fireworks we can.”

FDOT renews funding commitment for trolley

The Sarasota County commissioners recently heard more good news about the Siesta Breeze open-air trolley.

During board’s June 21 budget workshop, Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) Director Rocky Burke reported that the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) staff had agreed to provide matching funding to keep the Breeze operating for another two years.

The Siesta Key Breeze heads south on Beach Road. Rachel Hackney photo

In a June 27 telephone interview with the News Leader, Kendra Keiderling, SCAT’s marketing, outreach and customer service supervisor, explained that FDOT has not put the commitment in writing yet, so county staff is not exactly sure how the state will provide the money. She promised the News Leader more details after they have been finalized. Still, she said, the next two-year period would follow the August ending date of the first FDOT grant agreement for the service.

On May 26, the County Commission learned that SCAT had identified funding to operate the trolley through mid-February 2018. On June 21, Burke said staff will work on finding the money needed to match the new FDOT grant.

In the meantime, Keiderling told the News Leader on June 27 that ridership continues to surpass expectations. In May, she continued, the total number of passengers was 17,332 — about 660 a day. That is approximately double what SCAT had hoped for, she pointed out. “We anticipated May being one of the slowest months.”

Speaking of the Fourth …

Collaboration has been the theme as representatives of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) and the Siesta Key Chamber have been hard at work on an initiative to help keep the beach clean this year over the July Fourth holiday period.

SKA Vice President Catherine Luckner told the News Leader this week that volunteer Veronica Murphy has lined up a team of 30 people to give out bags to beachgoers from any of the island’s rental properties, encouraging everyone to TAKE2: one bag for them and one to give to someone else they see without a bag. The volunteers will be divided among beach accesses — especially No. 5, which is at the western end of Ocean Boulevard in Siesta Village.

Veronica Murphy addresses the SkA audience on Aug. 4, 2016. File photo

Sarasota County agreed to provide T-shirts and some trash bags for the endeavor, Luckner added.

The Chamber is helping publicize the TAKE2 message, she said.

Additionally, Realtor and Siesta property owner Michael Holderness has donated 1,000 trash bags, Luckner noted, and he has offered to assist in removal of any bags from the beach.

After so many complaints were aired about all the garbage left on the beach from Memorial Day weekend, the SKA and Chamber leaders are hoping this effort will result in a much better post-holiday situation.

On July 5, longtime volunteer Siesta trash collection coordinator Michael Shay and a group will be participating in Keep Sarasota County Beautiful’s Liberty Litter Cleanup. That will be conducted from 7 to 9 a.m., the Keep Sarasota County Beautiful webpage says.

During the Chamber’s last quarterly meeting for members — held May 17 — Shay reminded County Commissioner Alan Maio, who was a guest at the meeting, that Maio had talked a couple of years ago about wanting to come out to Siesta and observe the cleanup after the Fourth.

Keep Sarasota County Beautiful created this poster to recruit volunteers for the July 5 cleanup. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“You sent me pictures [of the beach garbage],” Maio told Shay. “It was disgusting.”

Then Maio added, “I hear Commissioner Maio’s wife wants to volunteer at 6 a.m. [on July 5]. I’ll talk to her.”

Shay promised to send Maio the details about the Liberty Litter Cleanup.

Pilot whale stranding

The pilot whale found stranded on the beach at Point of Rocks about 4 a.m. on June 23 was much older than Mote Marine Laboratory’s response team originally suspected, Shelby Isaacson, Mote’s public relations manager, told the News Leader in a June 26 telephone interview.

After the team returned to Mote with the whale, she said, it discovered that the mammal was a mature male instead of a juvenile. During the necropsy staff performed on June 23, she continued, the whale was found to be 16.9 feet in length, and it weighed 3,675 pounds.

At this point, she said, the Mote team has no “smoking gun” for the cause of death. However, it has sent off samples for further testing. Isaacson cautioned, however, that the results still may not provide a definitive answer.

The necropsy did reveal what Isaacson called “very typical findings” of whales in strandings, including minor parasite “loads” and an empty stomach. The mammal also had scarring to indicate it had had interaction with human long-line fishing, she pointed out, though that incident was not associated with the stranding.

The American Cetacean Society says pilot whales feed primarily on squid, though they also are known to eat octopus, cuttlefish, herring and other small fish when they cannot find squid. When males reach sexual maturity, the Society’s material adds, they generally are about 15 to 16 feet in length. They continue to grow until they are approximately 20 feet long and weigh up to 3 tons, it says.

Rebeccah Hazelkorn of Mote Marine Laboratory assesses the situation with the stranded pilot whale on Siesta Key Beach on June 23. Contributed photo by Shelby Isaacson of Mote

The lifespan for a male, according to Wikipedia, is about 45 years.

The mammals are found in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres and in tropical and temperate waters, the Cetacean Society notes. Additionally, the whales are considered to be very social and most often are found in groups of 20 to 90, the Society points out.

The report about the whale went first to the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, Isaacson noted, and then the office contacted Mote. Rebeccah Hazelkorn, senior biologist with Mote’s Stranding Investigations Program, talked with beachgoers at the scene before the whale was towed to Mote’s facilities on City Island.

Rebeccah Hazelkorn of Mote talks with beachgoers at the scene. Contributed photo by Shelby Isaacson of Mote

Sheriff happy to give up Midnight Pass space

During Sheriff Tom Knight’s budget presentation to the County Commission on June 20, Commissioner Nancy Detert took the opportunity to ask about the training facility the office has on South Midnight Pass Road. In recent budget workshops, the commission has affirmed to county staff its intent to turn that space into a public parking lot and Siesta trolley stop.

Although the Sheriff’s Office has been using one structure on the site, the county Utilities Department owns the property.

Knight explained to Detert on June 20 that the primary facility for his officers on the Key is in the Public Safety Building at Siesta Key Beach. When he was elected in 2008, he pointed out, the Sheriff’s Office rented space in Siesta Village for its substation. “Pretty high rent,” he added.

Siesta architect Mark Smith created this concept of a parking lot with a trolley turnaround facility on South Midnight Pass Road. Image courtesy Mark Smith

During the recession, he continued, Col. Kurt Hoffman, his chief deputy, was able to negotiate a much lower rate. However, after the downturn ended, Knight said, “they jacked [the rent] back up. So we bailed out.”

He did not know about the South Midnight Pass Road training facility for some time, Knight indicated. When he saw it for the first time, he continued, he thought, “‘This is nice, working on Siesta Key, right down from Captain Curt’s [Crab & Oyster Bar].’”

Still, he told Detert, “We don’t belong there. … We’re out of there. … You can have it.”

“They really want a parking lot [there].” Detert responded.

Knight did suggest that razing the building would be a good idea, “because it leaks.”

More funds for the south Siesta Beach renourishment

During the County Commission’s June 20 budget workshop, Rob Lewis, director of community and intergovernmental relations for the county, reported that the county was successful in obtaining about $5.9 million more from the state to pay for the South Siesta Beach Renourishment Project, which was completed in the spring of 2016.

A graphic shows the area of the South Siesta Key Beach Renourishment Project. Image courtesy Sarasota County

County leaders joined forces with the Florida Association of Counties to increase the amount of state funds set aside this year for beach renourishment initiatives, Lewis pointed out.

Commissioner Nancy Detert was pleased to hear that news, she told Lewis.

As a state representative and later a state senator, Detert often worked to help her constituents obtain money to bolster their beaches, she has noted.

The South Siesta project cost approximately $21.5 million overall.

How many people???

SKA Vice President Catherine Luckner recently shared a very big number with the News Leader that Visit Sarasota County had shared with her on June 17: Since Stephen Leatherman of Florida International University — Dr. Beach — announced just before the start of Memorial Day weekend that Siesta once again is the No. 1 beach in the U.S., the total number of “media impressions” had hit the 597,000,000 mark.

“Media impression” refers to a person’s viewing information on television, for example, or reading about it in a publication.

Full-time Siesta residents have been a bit conflicted over the beach’s honor. When Siesta won the distinction in 2011, tourists flocked to the Key more thickly than migratory birds in the wintertime. Memorial Day weekend also saw a greater influx of visitors than anticipated, based on what various Key residents told the News Leader. Another boom would be good news for businesses; bad news for residents would be all those extra people competing for spots on the beach and in island restaurants.

Crystal Classic dates announced

The 2017 Siesta Key Crystal Classic International Sand Sculpting Festival will be held Nov. 10-13, organizers have announced.

This will be the eighth installment of the event on Siesta Public Beach, which will feature 24 “of the premier master sand sculptors from all over the world,” competing for first place on the No. 1 beach, a news release points out. Several artists from past years will be present again, including last year’s first-place winners, Abe Waterman and Walter MacDonald, as well as Kirk Rademaker and Matt Long, the release notes.

Sneak Peak was one of the most popular creations during the 2016 Crystal Classic. Contributed photo by Studio F Productions

The Siesta Key Crystal Classic has hosted more than 200,000 attendees, the release adds.

In only 24 sculpting hours — spanning the four-day event — the artists create sand masterpieces — some more than 10 feet tall — “and transform the always beautiful Siesta Beach into an outdoor art gallery,” the release says.

This year, the event hours will be extended to 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, 2017 Chair Maria Bankemper announced during the May 17 Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce general meeting. The reason: “to light up the sculptures with colored light and make [them] a spectacular centerpiece.” She pointed out that the sand “is very reflective.”

Live music will be presented by Reverend Barry & Funktastic Soul on Friday night and by One Night Rodeo on Saturday night, the release says. “Drinks will be flowing at the party tent,” it notes.

The festival is more than just a matter of sand, the release explains. It also features live music along with a large village of vendors with all sorts of items to sell, including food and drinks. Among the other activities are the “Quick Sand” competitions — during which the artists demonstrate just how fast they can transform a small amount of sand into a sculpture — sand sculpting lessons, an amateur competition and The Learning Curve, an educational and fun area for children.

For more information and to purchase advance tickets and parking passes, visit the website:

The Siesta Key Crystal Classic is owned by Siesta Beach Festival Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. The event is produced by the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce to promote tourism, local businesses, the visual arts and sea turtle conservation awareness through a collaborative partnership with the community, the release explains.

Founded in 2010, The Crystal Classic is a result of discussions between master sand sculptor and Siesta Key resident Brian Wigelsworth and representatives of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, Sarasota County Parks and Recreation, Mote Marine Laboratory and Visit Sarasota County, the release adds.

Congratulations to the Best Western Plus!

The Best Western Plus Siesta Key Gateway Hotel this week received the 2017 TripAdvisor® Certificate of Excellence for the fourth consecutive year, the hotel has announced.

The Best Western Plus Siesta Key Gateway Hotel property includes this pool and deck. Contributed photo from the hotel

Now in its seventh year, the award “celebrates hospitality businesses that have earned great traveler reviews on TripAdvisor over the past year,” a news release points out. “Certificate of Excellence recipients include accommodations, restaurants and attractions located all over the world that have continually delivered a quality customer experience,” the release adds.

“The Best Western Plus Siesta Key Gateway Hotel is honored to receive the 2017 TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence,” said Maria Bankemper, co-owner and director of operations, in the release. “Delivering an exceptional guest experience is at the core of our day-to-day operations. Our staff is committed to going above and beyond, and this recognition is a reflection of their hard work and our dedication to superior customer service.”

“This recognition allows us to publicly honor businesses that are actively engaging with customers and using feedback to help travelers identify and confidently book the right property at the right price,” added Heather Leisman, vice president of industry marketing for TripAdvisor, in the release.

The Certificate of Excellence accounts for the quality, quantity and timeliness of reviews submitted by travelers on TripAdvisor over a 12-month period, the release notes. To qualify, a business must maintain an overall TripAdvisor bubble rating of at least four out of five and have a minimum number of reviews, and it must have been listed on TripAdvisor for at least 12 months, the release explains.