Greetings from the Gulf: March

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Mr. Bates, I’m ready; Mr. Davidson, Ms. Patterson, I’m honored; Dad, I’m grateful

By John Morton

Prediction: The next person to apply for a permit here to create a place for lodging goes by the name of Bates. Not that I’m going Psycho or anything but yes the never-ending coverage of the hotel horror story I’m living may very well be getting to me a bit.

For example, I’ve removed all shower curtains from my home. So much for my roommate-wanted ad.
Meanwhile, everywhere I go I’m asked if there’s anything new with the hotels. I tell them that all work and no play makes John a dull boy. Yeah, I know that’s a different movie, but I’ve pretty much checked myself into that hotel as well.
Not even this particular “I’ve seen it all” columnist saw a situation where, just a few weeks after a judge supposedly ended this saga, a sequel as thick as War and Peace was hitting our figurative newsstands.
The idea that Benderson Development is the publisher, with its proposal for an 85-footer in the Village, makes this all even more of a must-read.
And all great stories need a conflicted character. Enter Dave Balot. The hopeful hotelier wants approval for his place, but that means two troublesome competitors would also be breaking ground.
How’s this for a head-spinner: He co-owns the Siesta Key Beach Resort and Suites, which for decades on end stood as the Key’s only traditional hotel, and a few years ago considered tearing it down and rebuilding from 55 rooms to 170 on plenty of acreage at likely no more than three stories in height. This, in part, because a guy first proposed building a 170-room, eight-story hotel just two doors down. And now, the new eight-story Benderson hotel would be just a couple blocks down the street as well.
Those monstrosities would overshadow his hotel both competitively and literally, as in blocking his sunshine in the morning.

All the while, Balot has wanted to build his own mid-island six-story hotel at 5810 Midnight Pass Rd., at the old Wells Fargo bank location.
It’s a site that required him to change his designs because of the protected grand oak tree that stands in front. Contrastingly, something tells me the discovery of the Holy Grail itself buried alongside Jimmy Hoffa wouldn’t convince the other hoteliers to change a thing.
Balot in January made a political move that indicated he was playing to win more than ever. At his Beach Resort and Suites he hosted Sarasota County District 3 candidate Tom Knight (the former Sarasota County sheriff) for a speech. District 3 is located down around Venice.
Now remember, thanks to single-district voting being upheld we can’t vote outside our districts (you, as a Siesta Key resident, are in either 2 or 4). Still, hotel opponents want Knight to beat incumbent Neil Rainford next November — assuming the comp plan vote that determines the unlimited density future has yet to take place — because Knight has gone on record in saying no and Rainford has a voting history that says absolutely yes.
A reminder: A comp plan amendment of this sort will take 4 of 5 county commissioners, known as a supermajority. Siesta Key’s Mark Smith (of District 2 representing the north half of our island) is an obvious no vote, but Joe Neunder (of District 4, representing the southern half) remains an unknown commodity. You may recall he was absent Nov. 28 when the vote was taken to accept Benderson’s comp plan amendment for entry into the political process (instead of more restrictive ones separately submitted by Balot and the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce). Only Smith was in opposition.
Then there’s this — a Benderson comp plan-proposal rejection means all the other hotels go down with it. Only a possible revisit, maybe with restrictions that fit Balot’s request (52 rooms per acre with a 1-acre minimum), would eventually save his day.
Balot wants six stories with 112 rooms on 2.15 acres. Benderson wants eight stories with 147 rooms on 0.97 acres.
What shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle is that the August ruling by a county judge reinforced the existing limits of 35 feet and 26 rooms per acre as established in 1989. Did this not count for anything? I mean, Hunter Carroll spent a lot of time on this!
OK, exhale.
So, I recently asked Neunder how he felt about possibly representing the ultimate deciding vote on this matter — especially if it comes to a head prior to November elections (where neither Smith nor Neunder are up for re-election).
Does such a potential vote make him feel anxious? Or would it be exhilarating to have that kind of responsibility?
His response? “As a chiropractor, I’m always looking out for the health, safety and well-being of my patients. I see my commissioner role as one in the same.”
I asked as a follow-up for him to be more specific but got no answer.
Well, this is the kind of tap dancing that tends to land a man in the office of … well, I don’t know … a chiropractor? Hey, I gave him a chance to back (ha!) up his quote, right?
Neunder clearly is a smart guy who’s careful with his comments. And I’m convinced he has what is best for Siesta Key on his front burner.
But, as we know, everyone’s recipe for what’s best here seems to vary. I’m so curious to see what Neunder has cookin’.

***

John Davidson, Nora Patterson, Ray Morton
R.I.P.

I just hit “enter” on my keyboard, creating a literary moment of silence for these three exceptional people.
A far as I’m concerned, I’ve known Mr. Davidson most of my life. Back in the 1970s, when the last day of spring break meant getting as burned as possible as not to return to Wisconsin without a tan, this guy was taking care of me. After all, his store introduced me to aloe vera. That glorious green goop saved my hide many a time.
Fact is, I didn’t meet him until the spring of 2021 when he began his newest incorporation effort. He invited me into his home, he invited me into his office. And he was just like I thought he’d be — a man of determination who did it with warmth. He balanced those two traits so well.
I called him Mr. Davidson, without exception. I couldn’t help myself. And he spoke often of how he enjoyed the Siesta Sand. Coming from a newspaper colleague, that meant a lot. Right back at ya, Mr. D, because I enjoyed your Pelican Press.
In fact, throughout the years, your decision to run the syndicated Dave Barry humor column was not lost on me. I leaned on his every word, and it set the stage for my interest in being a writer. So, I have you to thank and blame all at once.
By the way, those who enjoy Dave Barry have a sense of humor. So it’s no wonder you named your dog Harley.

As for Nora Patterson, it’s always nice to finally meet someone you’ve heard so much about. Whenever I heard Siesta Key residents speak of how the county had abandoned our island, they say Nora was the last one to truly care.
So, in November of 2022 when she shined again under the spotlight of what she likely considered it not only her civic duty but a privilege to speak at the park that bears her name, the former city and county commissioner was right back on her game. This, despite some significant health challenges.
Those in the know around here have made it very clear to me: Patterson was among the most influential people in our island’s history.
Davidson passed on Jan. 22 and Patterson on Feb. 8. Well, we know these things come in threes, and I’ll be darned if on a personal level it rang true on Feb. 12. That’s when my father died. I was at his side.

How do I best describe Ray Morton? As a wildly successful CPA? As a man who, in his 90s, still had clients thanks to the lighted jeweler-type headgear he wore that allowed him to see the ledgers?
He was that dedicated.
No, I instead tell people how he convinced his grandkids who sat in his lap at the Buccaneers games that when fans on one side of the stadium yelled “Tampa!” and the other responded with “Bay!” they were actually going back and forth with “Grandpa! … Ray! Grandpa … Ray!” That’s him in a nutshell.
To family, he was even more dedicated.
Still, as a kiddo, when I heard folks refer to him as the smartest guy in the room I had my doubts. Heck, he was just my dad after all and I had just finally beaten him at Yahtzee! He had to prove it.
In 1977, he did. He bought a condo on Siesta Key and changed our lives forever.
And those of generations of Mortons to come.

(John Morton is managing editor of Siesta Sand.)

John Morton
Author: John Morton

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