The sighs of relief last week that met the news that the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce’s July Fourth picnic could proceed as traditionally planned were probably audible on the mainland.
Everyone familiar with the chamber’s July Fourth VIP picnic on the public beach knows the food is delicious, the live music is entertaining — but not so loud as to disrupt conversations — and at least some of participants can be expected to deck themselves out in creative red-white-and-blue garb.
The real attractions, though, are the parking spaces that come with the tickets. Knowing it is impossible to find spots in the beach parking lot unless they arrive early in the morning, people snap up the VIP picnic tickets. With the parking passes plainly visible in their windshields, they can arrive in time for the evening’s festivities and have no trouble pulling into spaces in the field adjacent to the picnic area.
That’s also why the ticket sales have become the primary means of fundraising for the July Fourth fireworks show the chamber has produced for decades. Without those sales, Kevin Cooper, the chamber’s executive director, readily acknowledges that paying $34,000 for the night-sky spectacular would be a challenge.
That’s what I call a soft assessment of the situation.
Therefore, Cooper was not his usual, ebullient self when he told the Siesta Key Association Jan. 5 that it appeared the start of the county stormwater construction project at Siesta Public Beach would force the chamber board and staff to omit parking privileges for the picnic-goers. The grassy field utilized for the VIP parking, he said, was the best staging area for the stormwater pond work.
Cooper added that he wasn’t sure what the chamber was going to do to make up the lost revenue, but county officials were aware of the dilemma.
As it turned out, the county came to the chamber’s rescue, announcing the stormwater project would not start until July 7. The action was a model of collaboration.
County staff members also have assured the chamber they will make certain any contractors working on the project — and other planned beach improvements — will be out of the way of the Siesta Key Crystal Classic Master Sandsculpting Competition in November. That was an extra measure of good news for the chamber, which is one of the primary organizers of that event as well.
Referring last week to staff in the Parks and Recreation and Public Works departments, Cooper said, “Everyone’s heart is in the right place, in the interest of maintaining the (fireworks show) out here.”
Cooper knows a long-term solution will be necessary, but the county has given the chamber more than a year to come up with that.
Still, as county staff plans ahead for the beach improvements, some people are going to be upset about having to reschedule other events, because of the expected parking disruptions. Parks and Recreation General Manager Carolyn Brown last week said she and her colleagues at the beach are trying to spread the news to organizers of annual events on Siesta, to make sure they have enough notice so they can make alternate plans.
Referring to the stormwater project, Brown pointed out last week that if the county kept stretching out the timeline, “It just won’t ever get done.”
Anyone familiar with the stormwater project knows its completion is vital. The recent closure of the public beach at Venice was another reminder that the county must do whatever it reasonably can to prevent closures of the No. 1 beach in the country.
Twice in recent years, high counts of bad bacteria in the Gulf of Mexico have necessitated the temporary erection of “No Swimming” signs on Siesta.
With tourism figures having brought gleeful grins to the faces of Key business owners since Siesta won its No. 1 ranking, I shudder to think how news of a closure would affect future tourism.