Host: The event that just ended at the VanWezel Performing Arts Center was not the first, but it is definitely the biggest. During five days, the Green Living Expo and EcoSummit energized the Manasota environmental scene, and our news team was there to soak up the atmosphere, rubbing elbows with hundreds of energized activists, businesspeople, and even politicians.
Johannes Werner: During the weekend, pretty much every green commercial venture in the Manasota area pitched their goods and services at a Green Living Expo at the Municipal Auditorium. That was followed by three days of EcoSummit at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center next door, where the most prominent environmental projects and movements in this area got a chance to present what they do. All this, smack in the middle of Sarasota, surrounded by the gigantic parking lot that has begun to morph into the future Central Park of the city.
Close to 500 active participants had registered as of yesterday – and 1,200 for the evening presentation by author Carl Hiaasen. Active participants included a red-haired siren – we’re talking really red – throning in the lobby of the performing arts center, high and dry. Siren Jones was speaking in riddles about climate change while handing out tiny bottles of deep blue mermaid tears.
Siren Jones, offering mermaid tears.
In the middle of all this, we ran across a Republican running for office in Manatee County. Tal Siddique, clad in his trademark blue suit and bowtie, was standing in the lunch line for the taco truck. Asked why a Republican candidate for the Manatee County commission chooses to be at the area’s signature environmental event, he said he was concerned about the environmental track record of the current Manatee County Commission, and cited the concerns of constituents in his Gulfshore district.
Tal Siddique: Manatee County has been in the news, not in a good way, about our efforts to reduce protections for wetlands. And we haven’t had a great track record of natural land conservation, especially at a time where we’re dealing with such high-intensity development. Constituents in my district are very concerned with the direction we’re going as a county in respect to growth, and want to know how can we pass policy that will improve their quality of life and promote smarter planning … I’m here to learn what exactly is the conversation around quality of life. What does development look like?
JW: The candidate’s take was mirrored by Justin Bloom, co-founder of the Suncoast chapter of Waterkeeper, which has repeatedly locked horns — in court and in county commission meetings – with the powers that be in Manatee County.
Justin Bloom: I don’t see us going a direction in which we need to go. So I think one of the very important issues that’s not really discussed in these panels is, we need better leaders, politicians, policies. That’s something that won’t happen until the next election cycle [laughs] hopefully.
JW: Indeed, while there were 32 presentations and panel discussions, politics and local elections were not on the agenda of the EcoSummit. To be sure, the Waterkeeper’s Justin Bloom preceded his statement about the lack of politics with a big endorsement for the show-and-tell, and for the networking.
JB: … Really impressive. I think it’s meaningful to put these issues together. The agenda is great. The speakers are fantastic. It’s also really important for this community to come together. And they’ve woven that really well into this summit.
Dr. Jennifer Shafer shares with her husband David the executive directorship of the Science & Environmental Council, the driving force behind the event. She gave an example of good things that can happen when you bring the right people together.
Jennifer Shafer: Look at all the conversations happening. This is the one and only time that people have to get out of their offices, out of their normal circles, meet new people, and have those conversations. In fact, we’re proud that at each and every summit we’ve had so far, new connections have been made that have led to really important initiatives and programs. We cite the first EcoSummit, when Charlie Hunsicker, who was the head of Manatee County Natural Resources and Parks, met Christine Johnson, the head of the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast. That resulted in the amazing deal at Robinson Preserve. So stuff like that happens at these events, and there’s no other way to make it happen.
JW: The event was a big expansion after a pandemic-forced break. What are the takeaways, and what are the organizers up to next?
JS: We hope to have this every three years, with the Charles and Marjorie Barancik Foundation’s sustainability model in mind. Look for us again in three years!
JW: Reporting for WSLR News, this was Johannes Werner.
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