By REID TUCKER
Many were the suggestions of local business owners that attended a public forum hosted DeFuniak Springs Business and Professional Association (DBPA), and the DeFuniak Springs City Council did its best to hear them out.
The primary topic of discussion at the forum, held Thursday, June 17, at the DeFuniak Springs Community Center, was growing the city’s downtown businesses. The owners of several businesses along Baldwin Avenue agreed that, as the majority of DeFuniak Springs’ through-traffic passes along U.S. 331 and U.S. 90, businesses off those highways have different promotional needs than businesses in the historic downtown district.
Retired business owner Chuck Lawson pointed out that, in his 20 years of experience, businesses along the highways and those in the city’s interior have vastly different needs and may not be best served by what he called the city’s current “one-size-fits-all” approach to signage regulations.
“Those areas are not the same,” Lawson said. “I think the downtown area deserves special attention for what it need. You can’t compare downtown to [U.S. 331 South]. They’re in two different worlds.”
Councilman Ron Kelley suggested installing signs on city property directing visitors to downtown businesses and the historic district, thereby bypassing the Florida Department of Transportation’s regulations against advertising on the public right-of-way. Planning Director Greg Scoville said additional FDOT-approved directory signs to be located on eastbound U.S. 90, on the U.S. 331 overpass and on SR-83 are already in the works and should be delivered to the city shortly.
“I’m a believer that, if people will just turn off that beaten path and drive downtown and see our lake yard and the homes around it and the shops and stores we have there, they’ll stop,” Kelley said.
The Council also promised to convene a sign ordinance review committee composed of local business owners and government officials to go through the ordinance line-item by line-item. Though a specific date for reexamining the ordinance was not set, but Kelley said “it definitely will happen.”
The Council also addressed concerns about bringing new businesses to the city, all while being mindful not to attract duplicative services and avoiding losing revenue to cities in neighboring counties. The problem, said Councilman Mac Work, lies in the city’s small population compared with that of cities in neighboring counties and its slow growth over the past decade, both of which make new businesses hesitant to enter the local market for fear of losing money.
“The [businesses] I’ve talked to want to know the population of DeFuniak,” Work said. “I hate to tell them we’ve only drawn about 10 people a year over the past 10 years.”
As a corollary argument, some of the business owners at the meeting said what DeFuniak Springs should focus on is attracting more people to the city first and worrying about more businesses later. Little Big Store owner Dennis Ray said the way to do this is to refocus efforts, once again, on promoting the city’s historical downtown area.
“Industry and more jobs and new businesses would be great, but visitors are money,” Ray said. “They would cost us very little in infrastructure. If we could work on signage and promotion…to get people to come up here, those things would do us more good than anything I can think of in DeFuniak.”
Other suggestions from the crowd ranged from expanding the DeFuniak Springs Municipal Airport’s runways to accommodate jet aircraft to shoring up the city’s financial reserves in the case of severe hurricanes or other natural disasters. Improving the city’s web site for user-friendliness, pressure-washing sidewalks and planting flowers in front of businesses along Baldwin Avenue, and fostering better relationship with the Walton County Board of County Commissioners and South Walton Tourist Development Council were also discussed.
Though topics at the meeting were as varied as the proposed methods for bettering the community’s businesses, the consensus reached by the end of was that more such public forums would be a good idea for the future. Mayor Harold Carpenter said public input was critical if the City Council was to move forward in a positive way.
“We pledge to work hard with [business owners] to help improve our city and our community,” he said. “Hopefully we can take this information and make some improvements.”