By Rachel Brown Hackney
With the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office having formally vacated a training facility at 6647 S. Midnight Pass Road on Siesta Key, the County Commission unanimously has directed staff to demolish the structure and grade the land so the public can use the 14 paved parking spaces on the site.
The demolition expense would range between $20,000 and $25,000, based on staff and board comments during the Dec. 13 regular commission meeting. As part of a motion by Commissioner Alan Maio staff also will look into constructing on the site what Maio called “a modest little stop” with a roof, where people could wait for the Siesta Key Breeze open-air trolley. Staff said that structure probably would cost about $10,000.
County Media Relations Officer Jason Bartolone stated in a Dec. 13 email that the parking spaces would be made available to the public very soon.
Additionally, staff is to research the potential for moving the stormwater pond at the rear of the property even further east, to open up more area for parking. Commissioner Charles Hines made that suggestion on Dec. 13, and Commissioners Maio and Nancy Detert concurred that that would be a good step.
Detert also asked that staff research a fee schedule for the free Siesta Key Breeze open-air trolley, in the event the county needs to start charging for that service in the future.
Carolyn Brown, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), explained that the estimated annual cost of adding extra trolleys to make frequent enough stops to transport people between Siesta Key and off-island parking locations is $1,591,900.
Offering yet another suggestion, Hines said one or more of the board members could talk with representatives of the Sarasota Pavilion shopping center — informally known as the Gulf Gate Mall — to ascertain whether spaces could be set aside for use by people taking a trolley from that parking lot to Siesta Public Beach. The shopping center is located near the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road.
As part of her update to the board, Brown explained that her staff learned during discussions with the owner of Sarasota Pavilion that the owner was willing to reserve 74 spaces near the existing Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) transfer station, or up to 27 spaces in the southeast corner of the lot, near the intersection of Gulf Gate Drive and Mall Drive. However, the owner said the charge would be $10 per space per day, Brown noted.
Commissioners agreed that, given the decline in the number of people shopping at malls, the owner should consider the benefit Sarasota Pavilion could reap by having more people parking there.
As Commissioner Maio pointed out, many of those who left their vehicles in the lot so they could take a trolley to Siesta would be inclined — as he and his wife would — to visit shops or dine in restaurants in Sarasota Pavilion after their visit to the beach.
“I couldn’t agree more,” Chair Paul Caragiulo said. “It seems very intuitive.”
“That’s exactly where I was going with this, as well,” Commissioner Michael Moran added. It would seem a mall owner would want to pay the county for bringing more potential customers to the mall, Moran said.
The board members also called for staff to try to arrange a presentation by Charlotte County’s parking management personnel, as the Sarasota County board members continue to consider whether to implement a paid parking program in all or part of the 976-space lot adjacent to Siesta Public Beach.
That suggestion also came from Hines, who pointed out that neighboring county governments try to assist each other on issues when one has expertise of interest to another. He added that he hoped Charlotte County staff members would be amenable to such a presentation if Sarasota County paid their travel expenses.
Spencer Anderson, interim director of the county’s Public Works Department, also told the commissioners that in early January 2018, staff has planned to advertise a Request for Information (RFI) to learn whether companies would be interested in starting bicycle-sharing programs in parts of the county where demand for parking is high, including Siesta and Lido keys.
Hines questioned whether such an operation would be economically viable in the county. “They’re in large cities,” he pointed out of bike-sharing services, having used one himself in Washington, D.C. “My personal opinion is we’re still too small.”
Brown told the commissioners she would report back to them after the first of the year on the direction they had provided.
The Midnight Pass Road plans
The Dec. 13 decisions came as the commissioners continued to pursue options to ameliorate traffic congestion on Siesta Key.
The South Midnight Pass parcel has been in the spotlight since early this year. Maio has talked on a number of occasions with Siesta Island leaders about the property’s potential for public parking and a trolley stop.
Anderson of the Public Works Department explained on Dec. 13 that the $500,000 estimate his staff provided for the board in October for the creation of 39 new parking spaces on the parcel primarily derives from the necessity of complying with building code requirements.
“The county’s got to be bound by the same rules that we make everybody else follow,” Maio pointed out.
Earlier this year, Siesta Key architect Mark Smith drew up a concept showing the potential for 160 plus parking spaces on the site, plus a building in the center that could be used by people waiting to catch rides on the trolley. However, in October, the commissioners learned of the constraints posed by the aboveground water tank and wetlands on the property.
The $500,000 expense “would be a no-brainer for us on a good day,” Commissioner Detert pointed out. “But we’re still trying to make up for our deficit of $7.7 million,” she noted, referring to the estimated revenue gap the board is attempting to fill for the 2019 fiscal year.
“Looking forward,” Detert said, “I’d like to see numbers on a two-story parking garage [on the property].”