By DOTTY NIST
The South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) has made a decision to engage a facilitator for public discussion and work sessions on the issue of a new TDC office and on options for its visitor center.
The decision took place at June 11 joint meeting of TDC and county commission members at the South Walton Courthouse Annex. It was endorsed by vote of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC). The TDC plans to advertise for bids for facilitator services.
The June 11 meeting was attended by several dozen citizens. Many addressed the BCC and TDC with comments and suggestions.
District 3 Commissioner Larry Jones had requested the joint meeting almost five weeks earlier, after the BCC voted to deny the TDC’s recommendation to construct a new visitor center and office, labeled the “South Walton Discovery Center,” on a parcel within the Point Washington State Forest. At that time, the BCC had also voted to hold public workshops to determine the location and design of a new TDC building.
Larry Jones thanked the TDC members for their service and attendees for coming to the meeting. He said his idea had been to start the initial steps for the process in an open forum.
Pat Ballasch of DAG Architects had prepared an assessment of the existing TDC building at the northeastern corner of U.S. 98 and U.S. 331 and a needs assessment for the organization. He spoke on the findings of those studies.
Ballasch said that the 32-space parking area at the current building is not sufficient to meet county standards. He said the property is surrounded by wetlands, making the addition of more parking difficult. He commented on the adverse situation that has existed with access to the building since the former curb cut near the building on U.S. 331 was eliminated in conjunction with the widening of that highway.
ADA requirements are lacking with regard to door clearances and bathrooms, Ballasch continued. He also spoke of fire safety issues in connection with space on the second floor of the building, which had originally been designed for storage but is now being used for offices. Mold and mildew have also been a problem in the building, Ballasch explained, due to the structure having been constructed over a stormwater pond without a vapor barrier being installed at the base of the building.
Ballasch said it would be possible to expand the 8,964-square-foot building out over more of the stormwater pond—but that it would be more difficult to create more parking, since the property is surrounded by wetlands that are owned by the state. The TDC property is also owned by the state and is leased to the county.
Ballasch said that, for the needs assessment, the organizational structure of the TDC was examined and that typical space requirements for different categories of staff members and functions were utilized. The needs assessment arrived at a recommendation of a 12,000-square-foot facility to meet the needs of the organization for the present and looking forward into the future.
Ballasch said that phase II of the needs assessment had focused more specifically on the TDC visitor center, comparing it with those in other areas, and had found the center “way behind the curve” of many visitors’ expectations. Many such centers have “places for kids” and “places for animals,” he explained, things that the south Walton visitor center lacks and that would be difficult to add at the existing location.
Attendee Sandy Luchtefeld asked if the TDC visitor center had been compared with state welcome center in the needs assessment and if state funding would be available for a new facility.
TDC Executive Director Dawn Moliterno said the comparison had been with city and county visitor centers and that state funding would not be a possibility.
Ballasch said that Panama City Beach, Orange Beach, Gulf Shores and Biloxi visitor centers had been compared with that of south Walton County.
Santa Rosa Beach resident Bonnie McQuiston said she had contacted other counties and had not found any with visitor center/office facilities even as large as south Walton County’s current facility.
There was discussion of the possibility of retaining the current building for TDC offices and locating the visitor center elsewhere. However Moliterno said the lease for the current property would require it to be returned to the state if no longer used for the purpose of providing visitor information.
TDC member Steve Hilliard was in favor of having all TDC employees “under one roof” for the sake of efficiency.
Larry Jones observed that a number of things that would be “nice to have” had been discussed, including having all staff in one location. There is a cost associated with each, he noted, and it might end up that two locations would be the best way to go. “I see this as the beginning of a lengthy process,” he commented.
To cut the grass, you have to start the lawnmower, Jones said. “I think we’re just pulling the rope,” he remarked.
Brenda Rees told the group that the South Walton TDC had been “beating” competing TDCs for at least the last 10 years in attracting visitors. South Walton’s “branding” is its beautiful beaches and forests, she said. The community is very involved, she observed, and helps make the area great.
District 5 Commissioner Cecilia Jones asked Ballasch how much land he thought would be needed for a new TDC building. He estimated a minimum of four acres if the property were upland and suitable. He added that the location and accessibility would probably be more important than the size of the property.
Cindy Meadows urged for being frugal. She suggested creating a plan, then designing a building and finding land for it. She strongly suggested taking a look at the now-vacant former location of the Walton County Code Enforcement trailer on the South Walton Governmental and Educational Center property as a possible site for the new facility.
TDC engineering consultant Cliff Knauer said that property is 1.5 acres, just slightly larger than the current site, and not large enough to suit the purpose with a single-story building. Although it might be suitable with a taller building, a wetland determination would be needed, he said.
“We kind of have the cart before the horse,” said Mary Nielson. She suggested “breaking it down” and “looking at function,” then narrowing the options down for buildings and land.
“There’s got to be a budget, and we may not get everything we want,” said Anita Page.
TDC member Gus Andrews asked if the BCC would have money to buy land for the new building.
County Commission Chairman Scott Brannon said it was his understanding it would be the county that would purchase land for the facility.
Larry Jones commented that this would be a possibility, although no public hearings had been held to consider this. He assured the gathering that, if such a purchase were to be considered, there would be public hearings….
Read the full story in the June 14, 2012 edition of the Herald Breeze.