A new type of surfer may soon frequent the vacant space previously occupied by a surf shop in south Siesta Key Village.
Alex Gutierrez, a Siesta Key property owner and 23-year resident, applied for a certificate of occupancy with Sarasota County Planning and Development Services July 20, for an Internet café. After approval by county staff for building, zoning and the health department codes, all that remains before Ocean Club can officially open at 5263 Ocean Blvd. is a fire code inspection.
Ocean Club would be the first such business on Siesta, which has some residents and civic leaders concerned about the impact on the area. Gutierrez, who once owned the Beach Club, said Ocean Club would operate similar to 777 Internet cafés around Sarasota County, in which customers can pay for Internet time to check email, surf the web, receive faxes — and play casino-style Internet games.
“As a community, we’re going to have to start looking at businesses that are congruent to the area as a whole,” said Siesta Key Association President Catherine Luckner. “Is this something that would attract people who are worrisome?”
Luckner is on vacation and hasn’t had much time to mull the new business but said she has a lot of questions that she hopes county commissioners are asking about zoning and permitting. Those issues were recently at the center of a Sept. 18 growth workshop, during which commissioners heard updates on development regulations from county staff.
“They’re everywhere in the county,” Gutierrez said during a phone interview. “Everything I’m doing is perfectly legal.”
Sarasota County Planning and Development Services staff member Donna LaDue approved the zoning aspect of the application for certificate of occupancy, noting that there is no change in intensity because the transition from the previous business to the proposed gaming café doesn’t increase the intensity of use. The justification is that Ocean Club will operate as a retailer, according to the June 24 entry in county permitting records.
The distinction is also one of the operational details that allow Internet sweepstakes cafés to operate legally. Customers typically purchase “Internet time” to use on-site computers to play online games that resemble casino-style games of chance. But, because they are operated on computer-generated algorithms, they are not considered random — as true casino play is. Winners usually leave with gift certificates, or other non-monetary awards.
The Sarasota County 2050 Comprehensive Plan, which was designed to guide development and future land use, prohibits increasing intensity or density restrictions set in place on barrier islands as of March 13, 1989.
The density may not increase because there isn’t a build-out or re-zone — the property is considered commercial general — but whether the intensity will increase is debatable, said Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations President Lourdes Ramirez.
“If you have somebody parked outside all day, it doesn’t add to the other restaurants around there, and it doesn’t add to the ambience of the Village,” Ramirez said.
“There is nothing that would prohibit that use in the zoning code,” said Sarasota County Assistant Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson. The same is true considering that the parcel is located in the Siesta Key Overlay District, a special zoning district created to carry out provisions in the Comp Plan.
The parking spaces required for retail use is sufficient to accommodate the new business, Thompson said.
The business’ move through the permitting process may be something that should be examined as the County Commission considers tweaking the Comp Plan, Luckner said.
“I think we’re being hit now with a new enterprise that people haven’t thought clearly about,” Luckner said.
“It sounds like there’s nothing we can do about it,” said Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson.
However, Gutierrez said Village merchants would have access to another form of marketing in Ocean Club, which will have about 23 computers on-site. He plans to canvass the commercial district to solicit agreements for Village business gift certificates that would be used as prizes for winning the online games.
“We’ve got all our ducks in a row,” Gutierrez said. “I really do think it’s a win-win.”