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MTV has turned its attention to Siesta Key.
But is attention always a good thing?
Camera crews are filming a new reality TV show about wealthy local college students home for the summer at America’s No. 1 beach. Southwest Florida’s reputation for culture, arts and relative wealth doesn’t necessarily mesh with the reality TV dramas that the cable network has pumped out since the early 2000s, so this week’s news stirred mixed reactions among locals. Some are calling it the latest in Southwest Florida’s string of accolades, while others worry it might bring a party-focused crowd to Siesta’s shore.
Details about the show, which premieres in July and is known as “Siesta Key,” are minimal. A brief commercial ran Sunday during the MTV Movie & TV Awards, giving a nod to another of the network’s reality shows, “The Hills.” “From The Hills to the Beach,” it said as a couple kissed on the screen. “Welcome to Siesta Key.”
The show could shape the way millions of viewers see Southwest Florida, and Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, is hopeful it’s an accurate portrayal.
“I hope it stays true to what we are,” Haley said. “Our spring break is a family spring break. We remember that this is a place for families. It always has been. It’s not a place where we tolerate underage drinking. We like people to have a great time on Siesta Key and not at other people’s expense.”
Sarasota is no stranger to camera crews. The region made an appearance in the R-rated, 2012 action-drama “Spring Breakers” and was home to the second season of TLC’s “Breaking Amish,” but neither spotlight had any sort of lasting impact on the region. There have been cases where movies and television shows have boosted a tourism market, but that’s not a rule. “Sideways” in the early 2000s drew tourists to Santa Barbara County, California’s wine country, Haley said, but that was a major motion picture based on a bestselling novel.
“It’s a rare thing when a film or a show has that kind of effect,” Haley said.
Todd Morton, who owns Morton’s Siesta Market, said he believes the key’s true personality will come through in the show. A Sarasota native, Morton says he would hate to see the region branded with outlandish characters like “Snooki” or “The Situation” from MTV’s reality show “Jersey Shore.” It’s hard to know what to expect without seeing it, he said, but the publicity the island community gets could be positive for businesses.
“I know people are going to worry that it’s going to be another ‘Jersey Shore,’” Morton said. “I think we’re stronger than that.”
‘Learned some hard lessons’
But the fears circling on social media aren’t entirely unfounded.
Seaside Heights, which hosted MTV’s “Jersey Shore” in 2012, is still cleaning up its reputation from its brief career in reality TV. There are business people in the community who will tell you the show brought them a surge of revenue but that it came at a high price, said Chris Vaz, Seaside Heights’ town administrator.
Vaz said he would welcome another show to town but it would have to be one that aligns with the popular vision of the community. He described Seaside Heights as a family place and said that’s not how “Jersey Shore” portrayed it.
“When you approve a filming permit application, you really need to know what the demographics of the show are,” Vaz said. “That’s what you end up getting. We learned some hard lessons here that the short-term financial gain isn’t always worth the long-term consequences.”
“Jersey Shore” is an extreme case, though. The show was largely criticized because some of the characters weren’t from the area.
Reportedly, Siesta Key will be told through the eyes of its young locals, and that’s an important story to tell, said Beth Owen Cipielewski, co-owner of Siesta Key Oyster Bar and president of the Sarasota-Manatee Originals local restaurant group. So often, the area is portrayed as a retirement community. There’s more to Siesta Key than that, and this is an amplified way for the younger generation to see it.
“There’s nothing wrong with bringing youth here,” Owen Cipielewski said. “Youth is our future. Embrace it.”
The film crews have been at Gilligan’s Island Bar and its attached Lelu Coffee Lounge, said Mike Gatz, the general manager. So far the crews and cast have been above board. The business had thorough meetings with MTV before signing an agreement, and having the production there has been what was expected.
“I think it’s a good and unique opportunity for the area,” Gatz said. “They’ve filmed here, and so far everything has been very smooth. They have a good plan in place for what they hope to create.”
Owen Cipielewski has seen floods of negative comments about the show on social media since the commercial first aired on Sunday, but she can’t see a potential downside. Parking and crowds are an issue whether MTV is on the scene or not, she said, but maybe the uptick in tax revenue from the publicity could help fund a parking solution. The show also could help educate people about the area. There’s a ton of young, local talent in Southwest Florida that may finally get some well-deserved national attention.
Who knows, the restaurant owner said, maybe the show can correct an age-old falsehood about Siesta Key. Maybe people will finally stop thinking it’s connected to the Florida Keys.
“When you really think about it, what’s so negative about it?” Owen Cipielewski said. “It’s not like we’re going to turn into a Daytona Beach overnight.”