Story and photos by DOTTY NIST
Tourism, parking, environmental protection, code enforcement, signage, traffic congestion, recycling, and the U.S. 331 bay bridge were topics on the mind of attendees at a public forum recently hosted by the South Walton Community Council (SWCC).
At the April 23 public forum at the Coastal Branch Library, community members in attendance had the chance to get their questions answered by Walton County District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows, Walton County Administrator Larry Jones, Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) Executive Director Jim Bagby, Walton County Planning and Development Services Director Wayne Dyess, and Walton County Public Works Program Manager Buddy Wright. Meadows served as moderator for the county staff panel.
When the question period began, Jeff Wachsman addressed Bagby with queries about tourism. He was concerned about green areas possibly being cleared for beach parking. Wachsman asked why promotions to increase tourism were necessary, when the area’s infrastructure “can’t deal with what we have now.”
“There are many answers,” Bagby responded, “the most salient is that the economy of Walton County is tourism.” Bagby recalled coming to Walton County in 1977. “Very few people were here,” he said. There was no Publix and no Sacred Heart Hospital, he noted.
If no tourists were coming to the area, Bagby continued, half of the houses here would be empty. Many of the people who own houses in south Walton County depend on income from tourism to help pay for their property, he explained. Revenue from the gas tax is proportional to tourism, he noted, and infrastructure is paid for through the gas tax.
Bagby told attendees that the TDC has now been transformed, under the leadership of the current county commission, into a “destination management organization.” In addition to the maintenance of beach accesses that the TDC has historically provided, Bagby noted that the council now funds maintenance of the south Walton County bicycle-pedestrian paths, along with trash pick-up along those paths. He also spoke of the $31 million that the TDC would be providing for large-scale beach restoration along the CR-30A and Scenic Gulf Drive corridors.
“Lots of things we do benefit everybody,” Bagby commented.
Meadows interjected that the TDC would also be funding $450,000 worth of construction in connection with the planned Western Lake Pedestrian Bridge.
Bagby also advocated for continuing to advertise and promote the area to tourists. He noted that when the state of Colorado decided to stop advertising for tourists, visitation declined, with tourists instead going to other skiing destinations that were continuing to advertise. Bagby said Okaloosa County experienced the same thing when the county suspended advertising in the wake of the scandal with former Okaloosa County TDC Director Mark Bellinger.
Meadows spoke of the volunteer advisory committees now operating to provide recommendations to the TDC. One of those, she noted, the Destination Improvement Committee, is looking at recommendations on signage, additional pedestrian bridges, and building parking spaces.
Meadows told attendees that the TDC has now “picked up a lot of the cost that used to be borne by the taxpayer.” For the first time, she observed, “the TDC is a partner with the county.”
Bagby was asked to comment about the proposed North Walton County Advisory Committee to the TDC, along with proposed TDC spending for promotion of events taking place north of the bay.
“We’re trying to be good neighbors,” Bagby responded. He explained that the spending would be marketing dollars for events held north of the bay that visitors to south Walton County should know about.
Bagby said of Chautauqua, “the lineage of this organization (the TDC) probably flows from that.” He explained that plans were to set aside $15,000 in the current year’s TDC budget and $30,000 in the next fiscal year’s budget for promotion of this and similar events. To put this amount in perspective, Bagby pointed out that one wine festival south of the bay had received $50,000 from the TDC for marketing and promotion.
He added that it would not make sense to him that, as an $18 million-per-year organization, the TDC would not be able to tell visitors to the beaches about Chautauqua or the springs north of the bay. “They’re already staying here,” Bagby reasoned.
Meadows commented that ecotourism would be a big part of the TDC’s marketing efforts. She spoke of the new partnership between the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance and the county with programs for the public at the Kellogg Bayfront Park on Nursery Drive—and plans for the TDC to advertise the park and programs. “We’re expanding the scope of the marketing effort to nature-based activities,” she noted, adding that hopefully it would be possible to build a nature center on the 10-acre property.
In response to Wachsman’s concern about large areas being cleared for parking lots, Meadows commented that not much land was identified for new parking lots in the recent parking study by county consultants Avcon. With parcels so identified, the recommendation had been for unpaved parking with native plant landscape buffers, she noted.
Larry Jones commented that the emphasis would be more on “managing what we have” more efficiently with regard to public parking for beach accesses.
A resident expressed concern about discussion at one time about creating a 63-space parking lot in the Lakewood Drive area. She did not want to see sand dunes knocked down for such a project.
“We’re definitely not going to pave paradise,” Meadows assured her….
Read the full story in the May 1, 2014 edition of the Herald Breeze.
Story and photos by DOTTY NIST