By John Morton
A man with a name familiar to Siesta Key residents is returning to a project with which he’s quite familiar.
John Davidson, a resident here since 1958 and known as the founder of Davidson Drugs and later The Pelican Press, has stepped forward to lead a group seeking incorporation of the island.
If successful, Siesta Key would become its own town and form its own government. Currently, Sarasota County commissioners govern the Key.
Resident Mike Cosentino, who held public meetings in February and March to discuss the topic, is no longer pursuing such a mission.
The new group is called Save Siesta Key.
In the late 1990s, Davidson spearheaded a similar effort but pulled the plug in 1997 before applying to the Florida Legislature.
“The county agreed to work with us,” Davidson said. “They made some promises to add some signage, landscaping and streetscaping, so I stopped. And after that, it just kind of went away.
“But at that time, I must say, there were no real big concerns. We just felt a bit neglected.
“As it turned out, they never did spend any real money on us.”
The original effort did open the door to better relations with the county, including the creation of a citizen-driven 1999 Siesta Key Community Plan that entailed certain provisions regarding development and the environment.
But times have changed, Davidson said, and the plan has been ignored.
“We’ve lost on some big issues since then,” he said, “like the dredging of Big Pass, the Benderson project (at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road), and now the hotel proposals (all four of which require deviations from height and density restrictions). They all negatively impacted us immensely.”
Davidson said the county’s indifference about the Key is at its height.
“It only looks at us as a revenue stream. And no one ever gets out here,” he said of commissioners. “It’s worse now than it was before.”
The Save Siesta Key Board of Directors are Davidson, Chuck Byrne, the Hon. Harry Anand, Tracy Jackson, Stephen Lexow, Rick Munroe, Lisa Choate, and Tim Hensey.
A website has been created with the address of savesiestakey.org. With a lead-in stating “We are more than a vacation destination, we are a community,” it provides details of the incorporation effort and solicits donations in order to reach two goals.
The first is to collect $40,000 for a required feasibility study (the amount raised was at more than $23,000 as of April 30) and then another $250,000 to hire an attorney to form a town charter and create legal petitions.
Paperwork is due in Tallahassee by Sept. 1 if Siesta Key’s application is to be considered in the upcoming legislative session.
Another requirement is a signature of support from at least 10% of Siesta Key’s voting residents.
Finally, a referendum needing majority vote would be held as a final step in the process. If all falls into place, Siesta Key could be a town in 2022.
“Did you know we are the largest barrier island in Florida that is not incorporated?” Davidson said. “There is so much potential for us here, and it is in the best interest of the Key to pursue that. We shouldn’t have to change our lifestyle, but the problems coming our way with traffic flow will do that. In fact, it’s already bad. I was driving down 41 recently and the cars were already backed up that far with people trying to get on the island. And that was on a Tuesday during the lunch hour.”
Finally, he hopes to lead an effort to at least get his idea on the table.
“Siesta Key is a natural for incorporation. I’m just amazed it wasn’t incorporated before. I plan to work hard on this and get it to a vote this time. Let’s see what happens,” Davidson said.
He also noted that, if incorporated, he hopes the town’s direction will be to go “government light.” In such a case, police protection is among some services still outsourced to the county.
Fort Myers Beach, which incorporated in 1995 and is similar in land size and population to Siesta Key, follows that path.
“We’re using the Fort Myers Beach model,” Davidson said of his campaign. “Honestly, I think we can do this without raising taxes. It doesn’t have to be that way, and that’s why people tend to resist.
“Believe me, deep down I’m a little bit anti-government.”
The group will hold its first public meeting at 7 p.m. on April 28 at Siesta Key Chapel, 4615 Gleason Ave.
A second one is slated at the same time and place on May 19.
It is looking for volunteers to serve in roles such as fundraising, the petition drive, and being a neighborhood ambassador. Email email@example.com if interested.
Munroe, owner of Siesta Key’s Sun Garden Cafe, feels both the community and visitors are behind the effort.
“I get 2,000 to 3,500 people through my restaurant in a given week, and I get comments of support all the time. I’ve been asking people about the idea for four years, and I hear the same things. Whether they live on the Key or not, they have an intimate connection with it and love its character.
“There’s a groundswell of interest. It’s strong.”
Added Davidson, “I think it’s stronger than it was 25 years ago.”
Garnering the backing of local business leaders will also be a goal of the group.
Steve Cavanaugh, owner of Tropical Sands Accommodations, is among them. He thinks Davidson’s role will make a difference.
“John Davidson has been a staple in the Siesta Key community for as long as I have lived here — since 1995 — and obviously many years before that. His credibility is unquestioned and I appreciate what he is trying to do for our island,” Cavanaugh said. “I could not think of a better or more respected person to spearhead this effort of incorporation.
“While I have not made up my mind on which way to go on this I would, without question, listen to what he proposes.”
Munroe hopes the initiative finally gets the support he feels it deserves.
“We’re the crown jewel (of the area). We should be treated as such,” he said.