It would be easy to mistake Lee for a beach bum. After all, he’s easy going and affable. He wears a year-round tan. As a lifelong resident of the Pensacola, Fla. area, he has saltwater in his veins. He’s known around the community as a laid-back former car salesman who spends a lot of time on the beach sporting his trademark Ole Miss straw hat and sunglasses. But you’d only be half right. He might love the beach, but Lee is no bum.
In fact, as executive director of Santa Rosa Island Authority (SIRA), he is responsible for making sure that just about everything runs smoothly at this beach community and resort destination. That’s because Santa Rosa Island is unlike many of its neighboring beach communities. The Island—which includes Pensacola Beach, Navarre Beach, and the Gulf Isles National Seashore—is owned by Escambia County and operated under the auspices of the Island Authority. That means that there are no property owners on the island. Everything on the island—hotels, condos, restaurants, and retail space—is leased from the Island Authority. The organization is responsible for maintaining all of that, plus the beaches and other public areas.
So when he discovered that the oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster was covering his beach, he knew he had work to do.
After years of operating his family’s car dealership and serving two stints as county commissioner of first Escambia County and then Santa Rosa County, Lee became executive director of SRIA in 2005.
“We had just come out of Hurricane Ivan,” Lee said. “Then Hurricane Dennis came a few weeks later. I thought that was bad, but the oil spill was the worst.”
Knowing that the disaster could spell doom for their tourism economy, Lee set to work navigating the labyrinthine corporate and government apparatus that had been assembled to clean up the spill.
“I had to go through this ‘unified command’, which was anything but unified,” he said. “It was made up of BP, the Coast Guard, the EPA and the Department of the Interior, with offices in Mobile and New Orleans.”
But through his tenacity and a lot of “yelling and screaming” he was able to get BP contractors to the island to sift through the beach and remove all the oil and tar balls. They brought in backhoes and sifters and dug two to 2 1/2 feet into the sand (and deeper when necessary), separating the sand from the oil with giant machines. They covered the full 8.5 miles of the beach.
Now, “our beach is back, finally,” Lee said. “I’ve lived here all my life and this is probably the cleanest the beach has ever been.”
The challenge Lee now faces is getting the word out that Pensacola Beach is open for business again. He says that the area serves as an attractive location for day trippers and overnight guests alike. It boasts the most free parking of any area on the Gulf of Mexico. Because the county owns the land, all of the beaches are open to the public. Also, the Authority operates multiple recreation areas with restroom facilities, showers, grilling areas and fishing piers. With the advent of a new high-tech trolley system, the area can often take on the feel of a well-managed park, which isn’t far from the truth. The trolleys are free, and run seven days a week from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m. Press a button at each terminal, or scan it with your smartphone and it’ll tell you when the next trolley will arrive. There’s more on their website, too.
“You can go on our website and track the trolleys,” said Lee. “Or you can scroll down to the cameras and see the condition of the water or how crowded the beach is at a specific place.”
The island has a cap on residential construction, and that cap has been met. “We’re not overdeveloped and we never will be,” says Lee. Last year saw the opening of two new resort properties—Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville and a Holiday Inn Resort.
Buck Lee might seem laid back, but there’s never a dull moment for him. After checking on the status of a fishing pier, he’s off to meet with BP again to help restore some dunes that were damaged in the clean-up. Then he’s meeting with an advertising team to help get their message out. He says their market area extends from Baton Rouge in the west to Nashville in the north and Atlanta in the east. “It’s all about a tank full away,” he said.