By DOTTY NIST
Plans for a new South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) building took a step forward on March 13 with TDC approval of working terms for the new building.
The proposed location is directly south of the U.S. 331/U.S. 98 intersection on 11.9 acres that are part of the Point Washington State Forest. The working terms are for purposes of negotiation between TDC staff and the Florida Forest Service for use of the acreage, in a process that will culminate with consideration of the proposal by Gov. Rick Scott and his Cabinet.
The cost of the facility has been estimated at $4.5 million
The tourism council approval, which was unanimous, came after considerable input by citizens attending the meeting.
Among the terms approved were that eight acres of the property would be used for construction of a new TDC visitor center, offices and related infrastructure which would “collaboratively serve as a nature center/natured education center, with a goal of enhancing awareness of the unique natural resources and habitats that exist in Walton County…” The terms call for the property to be leased for a period of 50 years at a cost of $1 per year.
For residents, a common criticism was the location, specifically the use of conservation land for the building. Others complained that the project had come too far along without sufficient notice and without the public being properly involved in the decision-making process. Some maintained that a 1999 settlement agreement in connection with the county’s acquisition of the Government and Education Center property in effect barred the 11.9-acre property from being used for this purpose. The council members were asked if alternatives had been considered for the new building.
“Why are you focused like a laser beam on this particular piece of conservation land?” asked Anita Page of the South Walton Community Council. Page asked the council members to instead authorize TDC Executive Director Dawn Moliterno to look at other property on which to locate the building, or to consider retaining the current location.
Moliterno commented that there were a number of “challenges” with the current building. One of those is that it is difficult for tourists entering south Walton County from the north on U.S. 331 to access the building. Since the four-laning of the segment of the highway south of the bay bridge, there is no curb cut on the highway providing for access to the building from U.S. 331.
Council member Maurice Gilbert, who has served on the tourism council for the past 12 years, noted that over that period various sites had been considered for a new building and had been found to be unsuitable. Gilbert maintained that there had been considerable discussion and also public hearings regarding sites that were not selected.
Gilbert said the proposed location was determined to be a “perfect” one because it would allow access not only from the south but from the east and west. He added that there are approximately 22,000 acres in south Walton County that are public forest lands. “This is a small, very strategically located parcel,” he said of the proposed site.
“We do not think the settlement agreement is violated by this,” said TDC attorney Clay Adkinson. He added that in his opinion the use of TDC bed tax funds for construction of the facility falls within allowable uses of the funds per state statutes. The state attorney general has been asked for an opinion to clarify the matter, Adkinson added.
“I personally do not support a brand new TDC center,” commented bed tax collector Eileen McDermott. She recommended that the money that would be used for the building instead go to a cultural or sports center or arena.
Jacquee Markel expressed disappointment that the public had not been asked if this was what they wanted. “This is the people’s forest,” she said. “I don’t want to see a big monument to tourism when I come over that bridge,” she said.
There was a suggestion by one attendee that the use of parcel be mitigated by putting other property into conservation.
Mary Nielson urged the TDC to put off a decision on the working terms due to “significant community objections and issues brought forward,” including the question being examined by the attorney general.
“I don’t think you should do a darn thing today about that parcel today,” she advised.
“We have been talking about this for a very long time,” said TDC member Stephen Hilliard. Hilliard said he was truly sorry if the public had felt “left out” of the process, but that the proposal to use this parcel had been under discussion by the council for over a year.
Hilliard said the TDC members see “attracting and serving” visitors as their mission, and that they believe the proposed location is the best one from which to do that. He also commented on the importance of educating visitors to appreciate south Walton County’s natural features as was envisioned with the new facility.
The current TDC building is on property under a 50-year lease to the county by the Florida Forest Services at the same rate proposed for the new lease. The approved working terms call for the existing site and the building to be transferred to the forest service for offices.
Also approved by unanimous vote at the meeting was an RFP for architectural services for the new facility. Public meetings are to be held locally to obtain input on the proposed building and features to be included with the facility.
Since the TDC is an advisory board to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC), these approvals were set for consideration by the BCC at its next meeting, which was scheduled for 4 p.m., also on March 13.