By Trebor Britt
The title “No. 1 beach in the United States” carries with it a heavy responsibility. Nearly 3 million visitors from all over the globe come to the half-mile Gulf coast shoreline called Siesta Beach annually. One person is tasked with coordinating staff and volunteers to see that those visitors have a safe, fun and seamless experience. Jonathan Poyner, a 44-year-old Virginia Beach transplant is the man challenged to achieve that goal. Amazingly, he does it with great passion, humility, sense of humor and purpose.
A Recreation Specialist for the last 10 years, six on Siesta Beach, Poyner feels as though he’s in stress management. He works to provide a beautiful, welcoming, accessible park for people and helps administer great programs, events and activities. The way he sees it, “It’s getting people to unplug from their daily pressures of life and connecting people both to nature and to other people.”
Siesta beach is undoubtedly the most famous half mile of Gulf of Mexico coastline in the country. Maintaining this resource and the level of service that the community expects is a huge challenge. The sheer volume of people that pass through Siesta beach is incredible. “It’s like trying to sweep off your front porch as people continue to walk by. Access to the beautiful coastline is everyone’s right and we want everyone to be happy and have parking and clean restrooms and a safe park to come too.” Siesta beach is only 100 acres of the 55,000 acres Sarasota County maintains in about 160 parks.
Staff at Siesta Beach consists of lifeguards, a sheriff’s office substation, maintenance personnel, programming, a contracted concessions staff and volunteers. They all work together to provide the best experience possible for anyone who visits here and wants to come back.
Poyner shared his high regard for the 40 volunteers of the Beach Ambassador program. In 11 years, they have accumulated 22,000 volunteer hours. “It’s a real joy to see people give back to the community,” he said. “It has great value because those volunteers sit on the front porch of this great destination. They provide the first impression many people get when they come here for the first time. Seven days a week they prop up the staff and provide the shine of the park.”
One aspect of Poyner’s job is to provide about 600 permits per year for both public and private events. There are a lot of weddings on Siesta beach. The beach is also host of between 40 and 50 special events each year which includes everything from yoga classes to professional and amateur volleyball tournaments, triathlons, lifeguard training and competitions and much more. Learning to balance the public use with bringing more people to the beach with special events is always interesting. Generally there’s a moratorium on special events from February 15 to April 15. “No way could we bring more people to the mix during that period.” Every event brings with it huge safety concerns, huge environmental concerns, and huge maintenance concerns.
Sunsets on Siesta beach are spectacular. Poyner recommends that people come to the beach early. Once here, it’s easy to spend the entire day. There are plenty of conveniences here including outstanding beverage and food choices as well as lounge chair, umbrella rentals and other concessions. He recommends walking at least part of the beautiful 6 mile long coastline of Siesta Key and at this time of the year the water is gorgeous; get in.
The initial conversations regarding the renovations at Siesta beach likely began almost 10 years ago. The buildings and facilities are nearly 50 years old. Poyner loves what’s going on there. He really appreciates the great patience the general public has shown with all the construction taking place. Though the exact completion date is fluid, renovations are expected to be finished sometime in early 2016.
Each day at the beach brings its own unique experience. Poyner related that one day someone brought up a big blue duffel/back pack type bag to the lost and found. He went through it, found some identification and made contact with the person. The man asked if his computer was still in there. Poyner said, “You left a bag with a computer in it here on the beach?” He said it was in a plastic bag. He went through the rest of the blue bag and sure enough, the computer was still there. A couple days later he came and picked up the bag. Two days later one of the metal detector guys showed up at Poyner’s office. He said he had located something with his metal detector maybe a couple of feet below the sand and asked to speak to a sheriff. “Don’t you know, he pulled out that same blue backpack with the same computer in it 2-3 feet under the sand.” Poyner thought, “What is going on here. I just gave this guy back his bag a couple days ago. Turns out, if you’re like a rambler, you don’t want to carry a bag like that around all day. So what he would do is bury it like 3 feet down, walk around all day and then come back at night and dig it up. In the meantime, a guy with a metal detector found it, dug it up and brought it up here. When the guy came back I told him he had to stop burying his bag in the county park.”
Before working in the recreation field Poyner earned a BA in Religion from Mid Atlantic Christian University in North Carolina. He was trained as a minister and worked as a recruiter for a Christian college. His background was a great match because being a recreational specialist is about serving the community and connecting people. He passionately believes recreation is one of the greatest things out there and hopes a lot more people come into the industry.
Poyner’s wife is an American Sign Language teacher at Bayshore High School. Thirteen years ago, when hundreds of people were moving to Florida every day, they packed up a U-Haul, two young children, came down for an interview and she got the job. Poyner said, “That’s how much the economy was growing at the time. You could just come down and find something.” His son Nate just graduated from Lakewood Ranch High School and his daughter Kiona is studying to be a schoolteacher at Warner College in Lake Wales.
Running, fitness and nutrition are a big part of Poyner’s life. He’s competed regularly in half marathons and last year accumulated 1700 running miles. Spending quality time with his family by attending special events, farmers markets, water activities and visiting other parks is also a high priority. He also loves challenges and it’s all in or nothing. Many would be surprised to learn he hasn’t had a soda in 14 years.
Poyner reads a lot of health, fitness, leadership, personal development and finance magazines and books. His recommended reading for any high school or college student would be to read one of Dave Ramsey’s latest books.
He still has 36 years to go, but when he turns 80 he hopes people will remember the legacy he left by the relationships he built and established. If you get a chance, the next time you visit Siesta Beach, try to find Jonathan Poyner and thank him for the love, care and passion he brings to America’s No. 1 Beach.