By DOTTY NIST
An agreement providing for the E.O .Wilson Biophilia Center to continue to serve the general public was approved by county commissioners on Feb. 26 after some discussion by commissioners and the public.
The decision took place at the Feb. 26 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting at the Walton County Courthouse in DeFuniak Springs.
Operating since 2009, the center is located on Nokuse Plantation’s approximately 50,000 acres of wildlife corridor east of Freeport near Bruce. It is a $12 million private facility created for the purpose of providing environmental education to school groups and educators. Among the features of the center are an exhibit hall, classrooms, conference rooms, a birds of prey complex, and a network of nature trails on the surrounding property. There are plans for the addition of a bat cave, a petting zoo, and a NOAA Science on a Sphere.
Prior to a parnership agreement two years ago between the South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) and the center, it was open to the general public only on special occasions several times during the year. In accordance with the TDC’s goal of expanding eco-tourism in Walton County, the council pledged through the agreement to provide financial support to the center in order to enable it to open to the public, including visitors to the area, during certain days and hours. A yearly fee of $119,500 was agreed on as a means of offsetting the center’s costs of serving the general public. The source of those funds is the new product development “cent” of the tourist bed tax.
On Feb. 19, the TDC had voted unanimously to renew the partnership agreement with the E.O. Biophilia Center for a third year.
The agreement provides for quarterly reports from the center on the number of visitors, their comments and feedback, and visitor demographics. Information on these topics was presented at the Feb. 19 TDC meeting and at the Feb. 26 BCC meeting, at which the commissioners reviewed the TDC recommendation to renew the agreement.
It was reported that more than 6,000 members of the public had visited the center during 2011 and 2012 since its opening to the public, with 3,846 of those from outside Walton County.
It had been noted at the TDC meeting that tracking of visitors by the center had not been very detailed. Representatives of the center had responded that some visitors had been reluctant to provide information due to privacy concerns, but that there would be effort in the future toward obtaining more detailed information from patrons. TDC Executive Director Dawn Moliterno also noted that there had been an agreement for the TDC to place a kiosk promoting Visit South Walton at the center.
“It’s a unique asset here in Walton County,” Moliterno said of the center.
There was discussion among the commissioners about possible revisions to the hours during which the center is open to the public in order to make it more convenient for tourists to visit. Current hours are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. June through August and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. September through May. District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander suggested reducing Saturday hours, when many tourists are busy checking in or out of their lodging, and expanding the Thursday and Friday hours.
Comander was enthusiastic about the center, saying that she regularly takes her grandchildren from the northern U.S. to visit there when they are staying with her.
“It’s becoming a destination draw,” Moliterno commented, adding that special events held at the center attract as many as 1,000 people.
However, District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows was not comfortable with the numbers of out-of-town people being reported in attendance at the center in consideration of the amount of money being provided to the center through the agreement. This was despite her having voted as TDC chairman for approval of a renewal on the contract. Meadows said that since that time she had done more thinking about the expenditure and had looked at some new information.
J.B. Hillard of DeFuniak Springs was complimentary about the center’s service to the area school districts but questioned why the school districts were not being asked to contribute money rather than the TDC. “There’s got to be an end to this passing out TDC money,” he complained. Hillard also had concerns about the center being a 501(c)3 charity organization, receiving public funding and also charging the public an entrance fee.
Miramar Beach resident Don Riley was also critical of this expenditure of bed tax dollars, saying that he got more visitors per year at the condominium where he lives than the Biophilia Center gets.
Christy Scally, director for the center, explained that the center is currently in the process of transitioning from a private to a public foundation, a process that takes approximately five years and which requires that public funding be obtained. Other funding has been received from the St. Joe Foundation, she commented. Per the center’s agreement with the schools, they cannot be asked for funding, she noted, although the schools do provide more than $80,000 for transportation of students as an in-kind contribution. Without the funding in the agreement with the TDC, Scally explained, it would not be possible for the center to remain open to the public. She added that attendance has been increasing each month and that it takes time to build a destination.
Moliterno explained that the purpose of the small entrance fee charged to the public was to prevent the center from being used as a “baby-sitting drop off” by parents.
She clarified that it was the TDC that had approached M.C. Davis, founder and owner of the center, about entering into the agreement, rather than the center coming to the TDC for funds.
Comander said she saw support of the center as part of the effort to diversify tourism and promote tourism options aside from the beach. However, she requested better record keeping by the center in the future.
Meadows said she thought the center was a great asset and certainly worthy of some funding but proposed that TDC funding to it be scaled back, at least for the next year, in conjunction with an emphasis on promotion of the county’s other ecotourism attractions, Morrison Springs for example. She motioned for approval of the contract at a level of $60,000. However, there was no second to her motion, and it died.
Comander commented that two years ago the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center had been told “we’re going to give you a chance.” She motioned for renewal of the agreement at the $119, 500 level, per the request, in order to give the center another year to build itself as a visitor destination. The motion was approved 4-1, with Meadows voting no.