By REID TUCKER
The Walton County Board of Commissioners agreed after a brainstorming session to look at how other state parks are run before it makes a decision whether or not to charge admission to Morrison Springs.
The board held an open public workshop on Wednesday, May 1, in which it weighed the pros and cons of charging visitors for access to the park, eventually directing county staff to reach out to similar parks around Florida for guidance on the issue. St. Andrews State Park in Panama City Beach and Ponce De Leon Springs were brought up as two nearby parks that faced similar questions regarding entrance fees, with both the former and the latter opting for charging admission. Commissioner Sara Comander was quick to point out, however, that the board’s aim was not to charge admission as a money-making venture for the county, but rather to help ease the burden on taxpayers for maintenance of the Springs.
“I am not set on charging a fee,” Comander said. “I’m set on it costing the taxpayers less than $100,000 a year to maintain [the park]. It’s not about charging people, it’s about helping to maintain the park for as low a cost as possible.”
The state of Florida acquired Morrison Springs in 2004, with Walton County taking over management of the 161-acre park a few years later on a 99-year lease. The county then embarked on a wide-ranging project to renovate and update the park’s facilities, and the Springs opened back up to the public in 2007 with hundreds of feet of new walkways, a floating diving platform, new restroom facilities, a picnicking area, a new boat ramp, and improved parking and handicapped access. However, occasional bouts of vandalism in recent years and the ever-present need for water quality tests plus the usual wear-and-tear on facilities at the park, frequented for years by divers and swimmers from throughout the Southeast, has driven up maintenance costs considerably, the commissioners said.
Though major problems with vandalism were more or less successfully curbed by the Walton County Sheriff’s Office’s installation of a security camera system, the commissioners discussed the benefits of bringing in an outside vendor to keep an eye on things during hours of operation. Vendors could also sell air to scuba divers, rent canoes or kayaks and sell food and beverages, with a percentage of revenues going back to the county to help cover upkeep at the Springs. Melinda Wickham, who owned and operated a business catering to divers and swimmers at the park from 1980 until 2001, spoke in favor of having a vendor at the Springs for all the above reasons.
“You do want someone there that can oversee people coming and going,” Wickham said. “We found that once we had somebody there most of the time that there was no vandalism.”
Commissioner Bill Chapman, formerly of the WCSO, said he did not recommend that a civilian vendor take over the task of trying to keep control of a “rowdy bunch” of visitors, though he did say that damage to park was mostly caused by people illegally entering after hours. Commissioner Bill Imfeld brought up the point that most problems with vandalism faced by the county-run Wee Care Park in DeFuniak Springs when it first opened have since been prevented by getting local law enforcement officers to close the park after dark.
County resident Tammy Finland opposed allowing vendors at Morrison Springs and similarly disagreed with any suggestion of charging admission to the park, saying the taxpayers had already paid once for free use of the park. Any further access fees amounted to the county attempting to make money off the park during tough times.
“I believe in no fees or vendors,” she said. “The park is beautiful the way it is….I think it should be left alone.”
The possibility of granting Walton County residents a free pass to the park, charging only out-of-county visitors for admittance, was also briefly discussed by the board. A suggestion from an audience member to use Tourist Development Council dollars to help pay for maintenance at the park is, the commission agreed, the best solution, but is unfortunately impossible without changes to state law. It is prohibited for bed tax monies, which are, in Walton County, exclusively collected south of the Choctawhatchee Bay, from being spent north of the bay.
Regardless of what decision the county commission reaches, any changes to the management plan contained in the county’s lease of the property will have to be approved by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), which, combined with grants from other state organizations, provided more than $800,000 toward the renovation project. Interim County Attorney Mark Davis advised the board that any changes they wished should be submitted to FDEP as soon as possible if the county hopes to make good on its plan to have the issue at the Springs sorted in time for next summer.
Commissioner Kenneth Pridgen, in closing, suggested that the board direct county staff to look into how other counties in the state manage similar parks as Morrison Springs. Acting County Administrator Gerry Demers said he would report back to the board with his findings on the matter and then submit the information before further discussion was put on the agenda at a future BCC meeting.
“I’m sure some of the other counties in the state of Florida have got parks [like Morrison Springs] and I know they have the same issues,” Pridgen said. “It’s not just us.”