By Bob Stein
Since Siesta Key is one of the few barrier islands in Florida that is not incorporated, the Island Associations and the Siesta Key Chamber are Siesta Key’s closest form of local government. The Siesta Key Association is one of the largest and oldest associations in all of Florida representing a barrier island. The County Commissioners pay close attention to the SKA.
The Siesta Key Association has a rich tradition of representing and proactively lobbying for the rights of the citizens of Siesta Key, and it is becoming ever more critical to have an active body that represents the interest of all property owners on Siesta Key.
Gene Kusekoski is the new SKA president taking the helm at the March 2018 annual breakfast meeting. I recently sat down and had the pleasure to do a question and answer session with Mr. Kusekoski.
Prior to SKA, was this your first experience being involved with an association similar to SKA?
A. It’s my first experience with a community organization like this. Living in cities all my life, I was not familiar with unincorporated County territory. As I read about things happening on and around Siesta Key, I kept running across SKA as a community-based organization trying to represent a group of people who otherwise had no unique voice with local government, and I liked what they were trying to do.
Who or what prompted you to get involved with SKA?
A. It all started around bike safety, which is one of my passions. I hadn’t ridden a bike much during my pre-retirement years and decided to get back on two wheels now that I had the time for it. I love riding around Siesta Key, but there are some areas that are quite dangerous for bikers, especially occasional riders or seniors attempting to resume riding like me. At the time, Harold Ashby had joined the SKA Board to focus on bike safety, and I teamed up with him to try to address some infrastructure and awareness issues. We made pretty good progress on awareness; not so much on infrastructure, but it led to my joining the SKA Board and getting involved with some of the other issues facing us here. I truly believe that if you see a need, you can’t just complain about things and not take action. Within SKA, I saw the opportunity to get engaged with a group that was actively working to try to both maintain and improve the quality of life here on Siesta Key.
Are you now involved in any other associations on the island or in Sarasota?
A. Yes, I’m also on the Board of the Suncoast Alliance for Lifelong Learning (SCALL), which is working to connect the many lifelong learning organizations throughout our area with an ever-increasing population of adults who are looking for ways to keep their minds engaged and active after retirement. The SCALL Directorship evolved from my initial Board position with Pierian Spring Academy, which has since merged into the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Ringling College. I’m also a Sarasota County Volunteer, pedaling the Surrey on the Legacy Trail about once a week. We’re fortunate to be surrounded by so many intelligent, active seniors here, and both of these groups provide me with an opportunity to enrich my own life by connecting with them.
I like to call Florida a huge refugee camp. Are you a transplant or a native of Florida?
A. I’m definitely a refugee from the cold and snow in my native New England. I have no tolerance for that anymore. I’m celebrating when I only have to put on a sweatshirt on our “cold” days here and pretend to commiserate with the natives who say they’re freezing when the temperature drops to fifty.
Did you go to college, if so, where did you go and what did you major in?
A. Yes, I’m proud to have a degree in Electrical Engineering from Northeastern University in Boston and to be a member of the Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society. Northeastern was great for me because their co-op plan not only allowed me to pay for my education through my work engagements, but I graduated with years of on-the-job experience coming into my first full time job. They deliver a top-notch education, so it’s the best of all worlds.
Are you retired or still working for a living?
A. That’s funny. My wife would say, “He still works as hard as ever, he just doesn’t get paid anymore!” But in a way, it’s still “for a living.” As I mentioned earlier, active retired adults need something to challenge them or they just go dormant and atrophy. Working in my volunteer roles helps to keep my mind and body active, which I sincerely believe is the key to a long, healthy, happy life. As we know, there’s no shortage of challenges facing Siesta Key these days, and collaborating on solutions to these problems with the great SKA Board, other Siesta Key residents, and our excellent County Staff and elected officials keeps me very engaged and energized.
Do you have a strategic plan for the SKA board?
A. I’m not sure how strategic it is, but primarily it’s to continue to keep SKA engaged with current issues, and to figure out a plan to address them with facts and civil discourse. With the rise of Social Media and non-stop “breaking news,” it’s important to remain grounded and avoid getting swept up in sensationalism and hype. SKA has a proud history of working methodically and collaboratively with all organizations and people, and I intend to maintain that tradition going forward.
Besides the Big Pass Shoal dredging what are the other major issues SKA will be working on this year?
A. Well first I want to emphasize that the Big Pass work is far from done. Our hope is to drive this to an equitable conclusion this year so that Lido Key can proceed with a do-no-harm plan to renourish their badly eroded beaches, but it will still take a lot of time, effort, and money in 2018 to make that a reality. Beyond that, trying to get agreement on plans for reasonable development and redevelopment in a manner consistent with the character of Siesta Key will be a big part of our work this year, along with the related traffic issues. Some new efforts have started on Bay Island related to safety, and we’d like SKA to expand that to a focus on making all of Siesta Key safer for the increasingly broad mix of pedestrians, bikes, and motor vehicles we see here today. I think that’s more than enough to keep us very busy this year.
What are the goals and challenges you face for 2018?
A. My goals are simply to try to lead our capable team in accomplishing some significant milestones for the major projects outlined above. One challenge will be working with a complicated set of State and local regulations that can sometimes make doing things that seem to make sense a little more difficult. Another will be to manage the passions that are running high on a lot of these issues so that we can maintain a constructive dialog to work towards a set of win-win solutions for everyone.
What would you like to say to the Siesta Key residents and the business community?
A. To Siesta Key residents and our wonderful SKA members – we live in paradise! Face each day with joy and think about the little things we can all do to keep Siesta Key special and wonderful. If you have brainstorms, send them to us. You never know when someone may see an idea and say, “Gee, I’ve never thought of that before!” A lot of ideas won’t make it anywhere, but the ones that do may end up being significant. Stay active and engaged, but keep in mind that everyone deserves basic human dignity and respect, even as we argue different sides of the issues. To the business community – we love you and need you as a vibrant member of our community. The fact that Siesta Key has succeeded in maintaining a local, small business environment and avoiding chain stores is a special quality we want to support and nurture. Let’s all work together so that business can flourish and the community can embrace it with pride.