By DOTTY NIST
As the South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) looked at goals for 2013-14, there was urging both from within and outside the organization for more emphasis on nurturing quality of life in the community.
The discussion took place at the TDC’s Feb. 19 strategic planning session at the WaterColor Inn on CR-30A. Jeff Zehnder of Zehnder Communications, the TDCs advertising firm, led the session and will prepare the tourism council’s draft strategic plan based on consensus obtained from the council during the session.
The session was open to the public and drew close to two dozen community members. Also in attendance were TDC and county staff members.
Goals eyed for the new fiscal year were similar to those for 2012-13 and included execution of the South Walton brand through media programs, increasing brand awareness inside and outside of the market, building consumer inquiries and delivering leads to bed tax collectors, retaining and growing visitation from core and emerging markets, management and maintenance of Walton County’s beaches, and delivery of “unforgettable experience filled with lasting memories.”
Cindy Meadows, Walton County District 5 commissioner and TDC chair, responded to the presentation of the proposed goals with the observation that missing was the goal of quality of life for people living in the area, apart from putting “heads in beds.” She urged for a balance between tourism and the community and an emphasis on quality of visitors.
Meadows added that part of quality of life is the environment and natural resources of south Walton County, which should be promoted as part of the TDC’s goals.
TDC member Amy Wise-Coble urged for being careful when speaking of quality of visitors. This could be perceived in a negative way, she warned.
Meadows countered that the reference could also be positive and that “maybe that’s who our market is.”
Tim Pauls brought up the use of the term “South Walton” to market the area. He spoke to the need to communicate to other areas of the county that the term is not meant to denigrate the rest of the county—and that the area south of the bay is not so “elitist” that it cannot benefit the county as a whole.
Fred Buehler thought what was missing from the set of goals was what to do with the tourists once they are here.
Zehnder was of the opinion that that was included in the goal of delivery of unforgettable experiences and memories.
“We have done a good job of bringing visitors here,” said newly-appointed TDC member Pam Avery. “Our infrastructure is rickety,” she observed. Crowds and a feeling of being crowded can cause people to have negative feelings about the area, Avery added.
“Who does this particular issue fall on? asked TDC member Scott Russell. He urged for that question to be settled before the goal Meadows had suggested was added.
Meadows countered that in her opinion quality of life should become one of the goals, when millions of tourists are coming into the area and getting on the bike paths and two-lane roads. This has a huge impact on infrastructure, she continued. The community, she said, is asking for “a shared approach to maintaining what we have.”
This was a reference to the topic of a discussion during the TDC meeting preceding the strategic planning session, namely the possibility of TDC bed tax revenues being used for construction and maintenance of bike paths, beach parking, and for other infrastructure items considered as serving to promote tourism. A state attorney general’s opinion recently obtained by the county had indicated that bed tax funds could be used for such purposes in conjunction with a finding by the county commission that the promotion of tourism would result from the expenditures.
Wise-Coble questioned whether the approach recommended by Meadows might represent an unfair burden on a segment of the economy from which everyone benefits.
Meadows responded that property owners south of the bay already pay high ad valorem taxes. “Three million visitors says it all…you can’t tax people enough to pay for what we need to accommodate these visitors,” she asserted.
Don Riley observed that there is a feeling among residents that the TDC has “gotten divorced” from what is in the best interest of the community. Marketing has been “too successful,” he stated, and three million tourists definitely have an impact on the community with overcrowding. Riley urged the council members to consider a greater focus on sharing responsibility for infrastructure by redirecting TDC revenues.
Jay Nettles of Seascape Resort countered that it is tourism that drives the infrastructure and that some of the infrastructure issues should fall on the county rather than the TDC. If fewer bed tax funds are needed to market the area, he urged, the bed tax rate should be reduced.
TDC member Gus Andrews also expressed support for reducing the bed tax and increasing property taxes in order to spread out the expense for things such as bike path maintenance and roadside trash collection. He commented, as well, that the county commission should promote more development in the north end of the county.
Meadows continued to state that “a small percent” of bed tax revenue could and should be spent on bike path maintenance and extension, collection of roadside trash, and similar tourism-related projects, not to include roads, water and sewer.
She noted that extra deputies, extra garbage pick-up, and extra code enforcement are required to be provided by the county during the tourist season. All she was asking, she said, was “a realistic share of the tourism impact picked up by the bed tax collectors.”
Later in the session, Zehnder defined the “audiences” of the TDC as families, empty nesters, professionals with no children, locals, and ecotourists. Zehnder highlighted the use of “perfect” in marketing of the area. He also recommended incorporating the word “Florida” in the TDC logo to add locational awareness. Consensus was unanimous in favor of the latter addition.
TDC Executive Director Dawn Moliterno initiated a discussion of the TDC visitor center with the observation that the TDC was “back where we started” with that issue. While arrangements are in the works to address current health and safety issues with the building, Moliterno said guidance from the council members was needed on future direction with the facility.
Andrews was concerned that traffic at the visitor center had been only 20,000-25,000 for the year as compared with 50,000 in other counties. The lower numbers have been credited to a lack of access to the facility since the removing of the curb cut on U.S. 331 that accompanied the four-laning of the highway segment adjacent to the TDC building.
The perfect answer had been the one previously decided on by the TDC, Andrews noted, a new building on the south side of the U.S. 331/U.S. 98 intersection.
The decision had been controversial due to the site being state forest property, and the county commission had negated the proposal following public outcry.
“Nobody wants to take the forest; I don’t want to take the forest,” Andrews clarified.
“There isn’t a better location,” agreed Tim Pauls, speaking as a real estate professional. “It can be a forestry-positive project,” he maintained, adding that the facility would not have to be as large as previously proposed. The proposed site had been 11.9 acres when the effort was scratched.
Meadows suggested that the function of the TDC could change and that the visitor center could function more interactively in the future. “What is it going to look like in three to five years?” she questioned. She wondered if younger visitors would be prone to stop at a visitor center and pick up pamphlets.
“Is there a need for a visitor center?” Dave Rauschkolb concurred. People are already educated about the area when they arrive, he maintained. He suggested putting the center, if needed, on the north side of the bay bridge on U.S. 331…..
Read the full story in the Feb. 28, 2013 edition of the Herald Breeze.