Photos: Courtesy of Sarasota County
It has been named the best beach in the United States and is arguably one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.
In fact, SiestaKeyBeach, located in SarasotaCounty on southwest Florida’s GulfCoast, will have many improvements as the county oversees a spectacular renovation of the beach’s park facilities over the next 2 years.
Active And Attractive
Named “America’s Best Beach” in 2011 by beach expert “Dr. Beach” (scientist Stephen Leatherman), Siesta Key Beach is known for its clear and gentle surf and its snow-white, talcum-like, 99 percent-pure quartz sand that never is too hot for bare feet.
A favorite of locals, the beach annually attracts millions of tourists from around the world, who flock to the wide beach to sunbathe, swim, and view beautiful sunsets. The beach also hosts many events throughout the year, including the “Say I Do Again” marriage vow-renewal ceremony on Valentine’s Day, the Independence Day fireworks in July, the Crystal Classic Sand Sculpture Competition in November, and the Sandy Claws 5K Beach Run in December.
Besides beautiful scenery and popular events, the beach has history. It has been a popular destination since the 1800s, well before the county was officially established in 1921. The county purchased SiestaKeyBeach, originally only 9 acres, in 1954 for $80,000. Neighboring properties, which expanded the park to its current size of 101 acres, were acquired during the 1970s. The park’s main pavilion, whose mid-century modern design echoes the renowned Sarasota School of Architecture style, was built in 1959 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Over the years, several other structures and amenities were added.
Discussions about renovating the facilities at the beach started more than 10 years ago, after its features began looking tired and showing their age. The increasing number of visitors and the resultant struggle for parking has also been a constant concern for locals and visitors.
Beginning in 2002, county parks and recreation staff hosted dozens of community and public forums (including conversations via traditional and social media) to discuss the pros and cons of various ways to improve the park. The objective was to find the right balance—protecting the cultural and historic integrity of the beach for the local community, preserving habitat for wildlife, and remaining a top tourism destination.
Finally, in 2007, after several years of conversation, the difficult part began—putting together a concept plan with estimated costs that would win the support of the community and elected officials. It didn’t happen overnight; it took a few more years and numerous versions of a concept plan before getting a majority of support.
A Minor Setback
Just as this multi-million dollar project was about to move forward, the recession hit. The housing-construction industry dried up, eliminating a major source of the local economy; revenues from tourism declined; businesses cut back; and some closed their doors. Suddenly, the conversation changed from improving the beach to budget cuts and reducing staffing and levels of service.
Although the recession delayed the start of the project, it was only temporary, and in October 2013 the Sarasota County Commission voted unanimously to dedicate $21.5 million in taxpayer dollars to improve the beach. The project is being funded with a $12.5-million loan, Tourist Development Tax funds, and a voter-approved penny sales tax for infrastructure.
Amenities And Features
New features include expanded parking; modern, expanded restrooms; native and Florida-friendly landscaping; improved pedestrian safety features; and expanded recreational amenities and access.
One of the highlights of the project will be the restoration of the historic main pavilion, which has been at the center of the beach experience. The pavilion is so important to the community that a separate ground-breaking ceremony is planned just for this part of the project.
Additional highlights include pedestrian walkways through the parking lot, a 15-foot wide esplanade along the entire length of the beach park, and a new, elevated concession and restroom facility on the east side of the beach park. A new covered dune overlook near the west pavilion will be the perfect location for weddings, with the beach and the Gulf of Mexico in the background.
Other features will include new beach walkover structures, a new playground, picnic shelters, a green open-space area, a maintenance facility, and the relocation and installation of tennis courts. Access points will comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act; the planned installation of a Mobi-mat on the beach will allow visitors in wheelchairs to have access to some of the finest sand anywhere.
The formal groundbreaking of the project took place Jan. 22, 2014. The beach park will remain open and accessible during the entire 24-month project with the implementation of a phased construction plan. The first phase will minimally impact beach-goers, although there may be a period when beach patrons will experience some inconvenience. In the end, however, the beach will have first-class facilities to go with its renowned reputation.
Staff members from the Sarasota County Communications Department contributed to this report. For more information, visit www.scgov.net or contact the Sarasota County Call Center at (941) 861-5000.