It’s more than a little disconcerting that Sarasota County allows alcohol on Siesta Beach — the lifeblood of the area’s tourism.
To review: Siesta Beach was named the No. 1 beach in the United States last year, a ranking that garnered loads of free, positive publicity and drove a powerful tourism season; Siesta Beach was named the top spring break destination for families this year, something that should also boost tourism.
Neither of these rankings had anything to do with alcohol being allowed on the beach. And probably both, certainly the latter, could be damaged by it.
All this came to obvious and painful light on St. Patrick’s Day when a fight broke out on the beach among young men who had been drinking. Six people were arrested and about 100 people gathered to watch the fracas. Sheriff deputies on horseback rode through, blowing whistles and breaking up the fighting before making arrests.
This comes just two months after a Siesta Key jogger was hit and killed on Midnight Pass Road by a man who, authorities say, had been drinking on the beach before the accident. Although that is a tragedy that transcends the economic issues, it points to a problem that poses a threat to the biggest leg of our economy.
Juxtapose this with the enormous black eye Sarasota has received internationally with the murder of two British tourists. It is not difficult to see that if such an event were tied to drunks on the beach, the impact on tourism could be disastrous and lasting.
But, of course, that is an unlikely event.
Consider this far more likely scenario: An Ohio family comes down with their three kids this summer based on all that glorious national attention. One day, a group of inebriated youth get loud and profane and are making off-color jokes that everyone can hear while they are throwing back another Bud.
What are the parents to do?
They don’t want their children around this behavior. Do they say something to the intoxicated idiots and risk getting beaten up in front of the family? Do they move to another part of the beach after their little ones built a big sandcastle where they are? Do they go in search of a deputy and hope the punks know it was not they who ratted them out?
I’ll tell you what the parents don’t do. They don’t come back next year.
And that is an all-too-likely scenario that has already surely played out over and over. If it repeats itself enough, this becomes a real cost. The downside? About the only tourists who would not come to Sarasota because there was no drinking would be spring-breakers intent on getting wasted as part of their beach experience. That is not the group we’re after, anyway.
The Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau is adding a question about visitor attitudes toward drinking on the beach to the visitor “intercepts” that it conducts weekly, said Virginia Haley, president of the visitors bureau. She expects to have preliminary results on those answers next month.
If visitors envision a nice, older couple with a glass of wine enjoying the sunset, they will not have a problem with alcohol on the beach. If they picture drunk-punk fisticuffs, they will not want the alcohol.
So, although the results may be good conversation, leadership is needed on this issue.
The potential for a publicity black eye just makes no sense simply so some folks can have their cocktail on the beach. We can’t have everything we want, and risking Siesta Beach’s international reputation is just not worth it.
Imagine a video of horse-riding sheriff’s deputies breaking up a drunken melee on the white sands of Siesta Key. It’s just not worth the risk.
Suffer the slurs.
Ban the booze.
Rod Thomson can be reached at [email protected].