Rob Lewis probably felt as though he had given birth last week.
For months, Lewis, the county’s executive director of planning and development services, was the person in charge of getting a photogenic sign up at Siesta Key Public Beach, something proudly proclaiming what Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman told a national TV audience last May: Siesta is the No. 1 beach in the country.
Tess Herschman, visitor services manager for the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, said Monday that she’s been hearing that people are thrilled with the sign. Volunteers at the beach, she added, have reported seeing lots of folks doing exactly what the chamber, the County Commission and the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau staffs had envisioned: taking family photos in front of the sign.
That success is all the more welcome because of the arduous road county people took to get to that point.
It may have been pure coincidence that Donna Thompson, assistant county zoning administrator, was attending the August meeting of the Siesta Key Village Association when member Mark Smith raised the topic of a banner on both the north and south ends of the Key, welcoming visitors to the home of the nation’s No. 1 beach. Smith said Siesta Chamber discussions had focused on the need for some signal to visitors that they were approaching a special place.
However, Thompson seemed wary of the possibility that the county’s zoning code would permit those banners, even after John Lally, the Key’s code enforcement officer, seemed to think the banners could go up on a temporary basis.
County Commissioner Nora Patterson, a Key resident who then was chairwoman of the board, asked Thompson to check on what would be possible.
About four-and-a-half weeks later, thanks to Lewis’ efforts, small “Siesta Beach No. 1 Beach” signs went up on Sarasota County Area Transit posts near the Key. Although residents, business owners and even Patterson conceded it was good to have something up before the Labor Day weekend, those signs, whose creation Lewis had overseen, weren’t exactly what they had in mind.
Soon, those signs became a sore subject for Lewis, though he was ever the diplomat when asked about them. He was able to get them up fast, he pointed out in his defense, because they met county code.
Perhaps the best part about the signs’ appearance was the subsequent assembling of a stakeholders group to come up with a more desirable design. Patterson requested such action during a Sept. 13 County Commission meeting.
Lewis pulled together representatives of a number of organizations on the Key to talk about what they envisioned. He then worked with Kate Harrison, a designer in the county’s Communications Department, to translate the ideas onto paper, so to speak.
Regardless of how clichéd the expression is, the wheels of government do not turn quickly. And they sure did not turn quickly in this case.
It took about three months for the members of the stakeholders group to agree on a design that won County Commission approval. Even after Lewis presented the proposed artwork for both sides of the sign, in mid-December, the commissioners themselves offered some tweaks.
Throw in the holidays, with staff vacation time, and it was no surprise the sign didn’t go up until Jan. 18.
And there was still a bit of grumbling last week, I understand. Some people said the sign wasn’t in the best location. Specifically, remarks pointed to the impossibility of getting a shot of the real No. 1 beach in the background of the sign.
However, once again, county staff had been constrained by county guidelines in the exact placement of the 4-foot-by-8-foot sign.
What really matters at this point is that, as more and more photos of the sign appear on Facebook pages and in emails flying across the country, the arduous process of the sign’s creation will be forgotten.
After all, as Virginia Haley, the SCVB president has pointed out innumerable times, tourists touting the No. 1 beach to friends and family members should attract more tourists, and the county welcomes their spending money.
Contact Rachel Brown Hackney at [email protected].