Sarasota County commissioners believe they have made the right choice in calling for expediting the improvements at Siesta Key Public Beach. Originally planned for 12 years, the beach improvement project could be completed within14 to 16 months, commissioners say, to reduce the impact on our community. But, as in every case of rushing a project, there are a few things that can be overlooked.
Siesta Key Public Beach attracts residents and visitors for a variety of reasons, including its many activities, such as the July Fourth fireworks, the Crystal Classic Master Sandsculpting Competition and the numerous volleyball tournaments. The expedited beach park construction plan could have an unintended, negative impact on the events, because almost all of them use a grassy, overflow parking area located on the side closest to the Gulf & Bay Club condos, southeast of the current parking lot.
That area was used as a ballpark until the opening of Glebe Park. Now it is utilized primarily by event organizers for trucks and equipment and as the site of special event parking, for which tickets are sold. One organization, the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, largely depends on the sale of VIP tickets, which guarantee parking spots for sponsors, to pay for the July Fourth fireworks. Because of the expected construction at the site, the loss of the parking area could jeopardize the fireworks this summer.
The overflow parking area is well used during season, especially in February and March, when beach activities are scheduled practically every weekend. Large trucks used by event organizers to bring in equipment take up a lot of space. Having this special parking area, which is paid for by event organizers, keeps those vehicles away from the public parking lot. No one wants to see a section of our public parking area used by anyone other than visitors and residents.
Unfortunately, this grassy parking area will be included in the first phase of beach renovations starting in June. It will be closed to create a new stormwater retention pond. Construction must begin soon for the county to keep a grant of almost $1 million from the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
After construction begins, event organizers will have to park their vehicles, including trucks, in the public parking area. Some organizers, such as the Siesta Key Chamber, will be forced to find other sources of funding for events. It is possible some events could be cancelled if parking concerns are not addressed.
This situation could have been prevented if Sarasota County staff had continued dialogue with communitystakeholders throughout the process of creating the latest version of the beach park improvement plan. Community leaders were involved in initial discussions, and they reviewed the preliminary plans in 2009.
However, in March 2011, county staff unveiled a completely different plan and allowed only four days between their presentation to the public and a Sarasota County Commission public hearing on the proposal. Community residents raised several concerns, including questioning the need for an event stage (which was later changed to a multi-use center) and the location of bus stops.
If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that county officials should invite the involvement of community members early in a discussion and keep them engaged every step of the way. As it stands now, we may lose a few events that add to our enjoyment of the Siesta Key Public Beach. The stakeholders hope a solution to the parking dilemma will found soon and that other major problems will not surface while the plan is being rushed.
Lourdes Ramirez is the new president of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA).