Turtle Beach Campground expected to reopen Nov. 1, with completion of upgrades delayed by hurricane

Project entails burying of new utility lines and installation of Wi-Fi and cable TV access, among other work

A graphic shows the position of the Turtle Beach Campground relative to the Gulf of Mexico and Turtle Beach Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Although Hurricane Irma has delayed the completion timeline from Oct. 1 to Nov. 1, the Sarasota County project to move power and telephone lines underground is well underway at Turtle Beach Park, Manager Kyle Carson told about 35 people during the Oct. 5 meeting of the Siesta Key Association (SKA).

Additionally, infrastructure that will enable guests to enjoy cable TV and Wi-Fi also is being put underground, Carson explained, and new sewer equipment is being installed.

On a unanimous vote on July 12, the County Commission approved the $1,050,000 cost of the project, with a staff memo in the agenda packet noting that the water and sewer lines and electrical equipment date to about 1970.

The county “inherited all the original infrastructure” when it bought the property in 2006, Carson explained, “including the bathhouse in its current condition.”

He further noted that a lot of that old infrastructure at the campground was made of metal. People who have lived on Siesta Key for some time probably have “learned the hard way,” he continued, that “[metal] doesn’t work well right here on the Gulf.”

All the water and sewer lines also are being removed and replaced, Carson pointed out. Workers are installing pedestals that are “marina-grade,” he added. Constructed of a type of plastic, he said, they have a coating that will help them withstand the environment. A guest will find all the hookups the guest needs right on the pedestal, he noted.

“A lot of new plumbing” was added to the bathhouse, as well, Carson continued. That facility has showers and a washer and dryer for campground guests to use, he pointed out.

A graphic shows the new pedestals for hookups (right) and other work underway at the campground. Image courtesy Sarasota County

After all the work has been completed, he said, the driveway will be resurfaced.

Although he did not elaborate on the damage from Hurricane Irma, Carson did tell the audience, “We’re pretty excited to get back open.” He and the other staff members are used to being outside most of the time, he added; instead, they mostly have had to stay in the office located near the Midnight Pass Road end of the campground.

In her introduction of Carson, SKA Vice President Catherine Luckner noted how rare it is to find a campground adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico.

“That is what makes us so unique,” Carson agreed. “We are the only campground in Southwest Florida that has direct beach access,” though plenty advertise that they are on the water. “Either a major road [blocks] them” from direct access,” Carson said, or they are on an inlet.

The campground also has a direct path to Turtle Beach Park, he noted.

At the beginning of his presentation, Carson explained that for about six years before he came to Sarasota County, he managed the Rocking Horse Ranch Resort, which is in the Hudson Valley of New York State. “It was a great facility there,” he added, but “I needed a little bit more sun.”

He told the audience, “I got here literally a year and a day ago.”

In discussing Turtle Beach Campground in general, Carson pointed out that guests come from all over the United States and from abroad. More than a few of them first visited the facility when they were children, he said, and they have started bringing their grandchildren. “We have incredible occupancy … throughout the year.”

One of the original staff members at what was called the Gulf Beach Campground, before the county purchased the property, still works with him, he said. “She’s a great resource.”

A second aerial view shows the campground between Turtle Beach Park and residential areas (right). Image courtesy Sarasota County

The campground has 39 sites, he continued; among its major draws are that “it’s quiet [and] very small; it’s quaint.”

The total piece of property is “not even 2 acres,” he pointed out.

Even before the upgrades, Carson noted, the campground offered full hookups.

However, he added, camping in tents also is allowed.

Asked about the maximum length of stay and rental fees, Carson explained that when the county bought the property, “the goal [was] to give access to as many people as possible.” Therefore, the maximum stay is 30 nights, so people will not be enticed to stay all year. “We want this to be a vacation place to enjoy,” Carson said.

The campsites rent from $32 per night, plus tax, to $60 per night, plus tax, he continued. Discounts are available for people who stay a week at a time or a month at a time.

The facility is not designed for large modern recreational vehicles, he pointed out. A person traveling on Interstate 75 probably would see a lot of vehicles that would be far too big for the Turtle Beach Campground, he added.

When someone calls to make a reservation, Carson explained, staff takes the time to find out exactly what types of vehicles they have, so their needs can be accommodated. Because the road into the campground provides both ingress and egress, he said, people have to be able to back their vehicles or travel trailers into the sites.

As for sizes of vehicles: He noted that only two sites can accommodate a motor home that is 38 feet long, and another two sites are set aside for travel trailers up to 28 feet in length.

Asked about making reservations, Carson pointed out that county residents may book spaces up to nine months in advance, while those who do not live in the county can book no further out than six months.

Guests have a path directly to the Gulf of Mexico. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Given the demand for spaces, he encouraged the audience members to keep those rules in mind, as those windows are “exactly when you need to book.”

Just before Hurricane Irma arrived, he continued, people were trying to make reservations for vacations in March. They would call “on the dot” at 9 a.m. to get the spaces sized to fit their vehicles’ needs, he added. Irma “put a big damper on that.”

Because the campground’s phone lines went down, Carson said, it took a while before people once more could reach staff. He estimated “upwards of 60 phone calls from 9 a.m. to 9:05 a.m. just for one or two sites” after communications were restored. “So book early.”

A revenue-producing business

Former SKA board member Ron Flynn asked Carson whether the county is charging enough for campsites on “premium waterfront property.”

“There’s a lot of investment in this property,” given staff salaries and utility expenses, Flynn added.

Kyle Carson addresses SKA members on Oct. 5. Rachel Hackney photo

“It’s a pretty good price,” Carson acknowledged of the fee structure, but he assured Flynn, “[The campground] is revenue-producing.”

The memo provided to the County Commission in advance of its July 12 meeting said that during the 2016 fiscal year, the facility had an occupancy rate of 83%, generating revenue of $536,000.

County leadership was most interested in giving the public access to the Gulf when it purchased the property, Carson pointed out during the SKA meeting.

Asked whether management is on site 24 hours a day, Carson explained that staff works from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. Additionally, over the past year, a “camp post” volunteer position was added. In lieu of paying rent, Carson said, that unsalaried volunteer assists guests overnight and helps with cleaning up the campsites and preparing them for the next users.

If a guest has a problem or “a rowdy bunch at Turtle Beach Park” produces complaints, Carson continued, the volunteer knows whom to call to get issues resolved as quickly as possible. “That’s been a huge asset.”

Carson invited the attendees seeking more information — or those wishing to make reservations — to call the campground at 861-CAMP (2267) or to send email to turtlebeachcampground@scgov.net.