Smith wins County Commission consensus for staff to research proposal for public restrooms in Siesta Village

In 2022, Siesta Chamber leaders formally asked commissioners for such a project, but staff said no funding was available for it

 Before he was elected to the Sarasota County Commission in November 2022, Siesta Key architect Mark Smith was a long-time director and officer of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce. In that latter capacity, he championed a number of proposals to improve Siesta Key Village, including county construction of public restrooms.

Last summer, the Chamber launched a survey with a solitary question: “Do you support the chamber’s efforts to encourage Sarasota County to fund, implement and maintain public restrooms in Siesta Key Village?”

Because the Chamber office in Davidson Plaza on Ocean Boulevard also serves as the island’s visitors center, its staff works with the public on a routine basis, Chamber leaders have pointed out. The top of the webpage with the Chamber survey said, “In 2021, we welcomed 5,223 walk-in visitors with an average of 40% or 2,089 inquiring about restrooms per year, which is approximately 8 per day.”

In fact, the Siesta Key Chamber staff members readily note — as Commissioner Smith has told The Sarasota News Leader — the most frequent question they hear is, “Where is your public restroom?”

While Commissioner Alan Maio was chair of the county board last year — before he had to step down because of term limits — he talked with Smith about island business leaders’ advocacy for public restrooms, Smith told the News Leader in June 2022. At Maio’s behest, Smith said, Assistant County Administrator Brad Johnson called Smith to discuss the prospect of installing portable toilets in Siesta Village until permanent facilities could be constructed.

Smith noted at the time that the owners of the Beach Bazaar, just south of the Village gazebo, were willing to donate land they own between the store and that structure, so temporary restrooms could be placed there. Smith told the News Leader that he had researched companies that provided restrooms in trailers for big events and concert venues, noting that one of those trailers easily could fit into the space next to the Beach Bazaar.

Then Smith explained that he believed a simple design could be employed for the permanent facility, without its having to be elevated to comply with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regulations for construction in flood zones. He added that he was thinking along the lines of the buildings that serve users of the North Extension segments of The Legacy Trail. The restroom facility would not need air conditioning, for example, he pointed out.

Assistant County Administrator Johnson told Smith in June 2022 that the county had no funding for such a project.

In late August 2022, representatives of three Siesta businesses appeared during an Open to the Public session of a County Commission meeting to make a formal appeal for the county to build public restrooms in Siesta Village. Among them, Chamber Chair Mike Gatz pointed out that 87% of the respondents to the Chamber’s survey expressed support for such a project.

Still, nothing happened.

Nearly six months later, on Feb. 22, as a recently installed county commissioner, Smith raised the idea again during his report to his colleagues as part of their regular meeting that day.

“There’s a tremendous need for these toilets,” Smith stressed. Again, he emphasized that the goal was to use a “very simple” design.

Smith then asked for his colleagues’ support for a board assignment — the county term for directing staff to undertake research on an issue and report its findings to the commissioners.

Chair Ron Cutsinger looked at the other members to determine whether any opposition existed. Finding none, Cutsinger told Smith he had commission consensus for staff to undertake the board assignment.

Typically, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis has noted, it takes 30 days for county employees to complete such a report, unless unusual circumstances necessitate a delay.