Sarasota County staff has worked with the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce to ensure the organization can utilize a grass field at Siesta Key Public Beach for July Fourth VIP picnic parking spaces, which the chamber sells to help pay for the traditional fireworks show.
Curtis Smith, the Sarasota County Public Works Department project manager overseeing the public-beach improvements, told the Pelican Press that work on a stormwater pond near that site would not interfere with the VIP event.
“We have committed to the Chamber of Commerce that we will not start construction any earlier than July 7,” Smith said.
Kevin Cooper, executive director of the Siesta Chamber, had told members of the Siesta Key Association last month that he and his board members were worried about the fate of the annual July Fourth VIP picnic, because the sale of tickets — which include parking spaces on that grass field at the beach — has been a major means of paying the approximately $34,000 cost of the fireworks.
The 20-minute-long light show at the beach “is a break-even event for us,” Cooper told the SKA members Jan. 5. People are willing to pay the $75 per person ticket price, he said, because they know they will have a parking spot.
Unfortunately for the chamber, he said, the grassy area that once served as a ball field “is the perfect staging point” for the stormwater pond project.
On Monday Cooper said he had received the commitment from the county that the 2012 event would take place.
However, Cooper said, “I think we’re going to need to find a long-term solution,” as the county proceeds with plans for the beach improvements.
Smith said county staff had identified other events, once the beach improvements begin, that will be allowed to proceed with as little interference as possible. Among them is the Siesta Key Crystal Classic Master Sandsculpting Competition, held in November. Contractors would be instructed, Smith said, to pull their equipment back to a staging area two days before and two days after the event.
That instruction will apply to the Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends as well, Smith said.
However, event coordinators will have to make sure their workers do not move any barricades set up by construction crews, Smith said.
The construction of the stormwater pond is expected to be completed in November, Smith said.
“Right now, we’re burning rubber on our final design and permitting discussions,” he said. “We want to be in position to start construction in the latter half of the summer.”
County staff had worked late last year with staff of the Southwest Florida Water Management District to ensure Sarasota County would not lose a $990,000 grant that will pay for about half the cost of the stormwater project. SWFTMD staff, Smith said, had drafted an amendment to the grant agreement, extending the effective date of the funding assistance. Smith will be back before the County Commission March 27, he added, to get approval of the revised plans.
In the meantime, Smith and other Public Works Department staff members have been working with county Parks and Recreation Department staff to determine other events that might be affected by an accelerated timeline for the beach park improvements. Parks and Recreation staff is putting together a list of annual events, Smith added, “So we can get that word out to people early.”
The goal, he said, is to alert organizers to the possibility events might have to be modified or canceled. “The earlier that we can have those conversations with people,” Smith said, “the easier it will be to minimize the inconvenience. There’s no way there won’t be inconvenience with this level of project.”
Carolyn Brown, general manager of parks and recreation, said last week, “We’re just going to do our best to work with the community … to try to make sure everybody has a good time when they come to the beach.”
One event not allowed this spring, Brown said, was a Walk to Cure Diabetes. However, she said the decision was not related to construction.
Instead, Brown said, the organizers had said the event would bring about 2,500 people to the beach in March, during the busiest part of season.
With 880 parking spaces available at the beach, she said, staff told the organizers, “We have so many tourists here in March, it just makes it difficult to have such a large, large event at the beach.”
Beach funding decision expected soon
Although the majority of the Sarasota County commissioners have indicated support for accelerating the completion of the Siesta Public Beach park improvements, a final decision is not expected until later this month.
During the commission’s Dec. 6 meeting, Project Manager Curtis Smith, who works in the Public Works Department, outlined a three-phase plan for improvements that would end in late 2014, if the county could fund the work on a faster schedule.
Asked whether that timeline decision would come during a Feb. 23 County Commission budget workshop, Smith told the Pelican Press Jan. 26, “I’m still trying to get an answer to that.”
Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson, who lives on the Key, said Monday she would expect the decision to come during that Feb. 23 session, if not earlier.
Shirley Wittine, manager of county administration operations, checked upcoming County Commission agenda material at the request of the Pelican Press and found no mention of the beach project on the regular-meeting schedule.
If the commission approves the phasing as presented in December, Smith said, “It’ll be an interesting couple of years.” He added, “There will always be fires to put out … (but) the end result, I think, is going to be terrific.”