By DOTTY NIST
For the first time ever, monthly bed tax revenues have exceeded $4 million in Walton County, tourism council members heard on Aug. 5.
This was part of a financial report presented by Jennifer Vigil, Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) director of administration, at the TDC’s bimonthly meeting at the South Walton Annex.
Vigil reported a bed tax collection figure of $4,133,207 for the month of June 2014, representing a 5.18 percent increase over the figure for June 2013.
Updated tourist development plan and strategic plan
TDC members voted to recommend an updated tourist development plan for the 2014-15 fiscal year. The plan showed anticipated net tourist development tax revenue of approximately $33 million for the 24-month period beginning on Oct. 1, 2014. Proposed uses of the revenue over the two-year period were outlined as $7 million to $8.2 million for advertising/promotions/materials, $7.5 million to $8.9 million for beach nourishment, $4.2 million to $4.8 million for beach maintenance, $3.6 million to $4.6 million for product development, $3.6 million to $4.6 million for shoulder season advertising/promotions; and $4.4 million to $5.6 million for administration and the TDC Visitor Information Center.
Members also voted in favor of renewal of the TDC’s state lobbyist contract with Heffley and Associates at an annual rate of $20,000.
Jim Bagby, TDC executive director, presented a draft strategic plan for the new fiscal year. The plan proposed an evolution from the previous focus of marketing the 16 beach neighborhoods of “South Walton” to one of “marketing the diverse, yet continually upscale, experience afforded by our collective product.” Key to this effort is to be promotion of “beyond the beach” offerings for visitors. Bagby commented that increasing the marketing of these opportunities for visitors both within and around the destination would “differentiate us from other destinations.”
Bagby also explained that the plan called for maintaining an emphasis on expanding the October- to-May shoulder season while continuing with an “overall focus” on potential visitors’ awareness of the area throughout the year.
Another plan emphasis was on seeking ways for the TDC to “comprehensively serve the entire community and rally those who celebrate the overall quality of life enjoyed in Walton County.” Bagby commented that he thought the TDC had “made great strides” in promoting “visitor and community enjoyment.” “We’re not there yet, but we’re focused on it,” he remarked.
For a number of years, the TDC has funded lifeguards at regional beach accesses and code officers to enforce beach codes. This year the organization began funding maintenance of the bicycle/pedestrian path in south Walton County and is also funding a construction project in connection with a new bicycle/pedestrian path acrossWestern Lake. This season the TDC also funded the leasing of property across from the Ed Walline Regional Beach Access to provide additional parking for beachgoers, and the organization is investigating other property that could be acquired for beach parking and beach accesses.
TDC Vice Chair/Walton County District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows advised that final recommendations, incorporating public input, would be presented in September in connection with the AVCON parking needs assessment study. “I think we all realize that parking and accesses are critical,” she observed. Meadows said she hoped to hold a public charrette on those combined topics soon afterward and start addressing those needs immediately.
The strategic plan proposed targeting the Louisville/Cincinnati area as an emerging market, as the area is a top provider of south Walton County tourists.
The plans listed the Dallas/Fort Worth area as both a top core market and an emerging market to be targeted. In response to a question, Bagby expressed the opinion that prospects were good for Southwest Airlines soon announcing a direct flight from Love Field in Dallas to the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport.
With all aye votes, the council members voted to recommend the draft strategic plan.
Among other action, they also gave a nod to a contract with Miles Media for a rebuild of the TDC’s web platform at a price not to exceed $250,000, with the project anticipated for completion in approximately six months.
East Corridor Project
Representing the East Corridor Project, Leigh Moore of the Howard Group made a presentation to the council. The project is a community effort by local businesses, property owners, and others focused on safety improvements and beautification of the east end of Walton County along U.S. 98 and CR-30A. This is an area now experiencing a great deal of change with recently-completed, ongoing and planned commercial and residential construction. The project planning area is between the Walton-Bay County line and WaterSound on U.S. 98 and between the eastern U.S. 98/CR-30A intersection and Rosemary Beach on CR-30A.
Elements of the envisioned project include: a reduction of the speed limit on U.S. 98; median and right-of-way landscaping and lighting; interconnected, safe, and pedestrian-friendly sidewalks; interconnected and safe bike paths; welcome signage at the county line; aesthetic improvement of existing developments; a crossing at U.S. 98 that is safe for pedestrians and is cyclist friendly; and undergrounding of utilities.
Moore commented that those involved in the project hope to make this section “a model in our area.” She explained that 10-foot-wide asphalt paths are envisioned on both sides of U.S. 98 with a landscape buffer. There would be an emphasis on native plants for the landscaping. Moore said developers had agreed to fund ongoing landscaping maintenance in the first phase of the project at an annual cost of $72,000.
Project participants had looked into a pedestrian bridge at the intersection, but Moore said that they had now shifted to a look at the feasibility of a pedestrian/cyclist underpass, due to the amount of space that would be needed for the bridge.
She noted that owners of property in the section had already undertaken some aesthetics improvement and that the project group had already submitted a round of conceptual plans to the Florida Department of Transportation (DOT).
The estimated cost for the project, which would be in three phases, is $2 million.
Moore requested assistance with TDC funds budgeted for “gateway” improvements.
Council members responded with many positive comments on the effort. Meadows credited the community members for having “come up with a really good plan.” She noted that it would have taken government much longer to accomplish so much. “We’re grateful,” Meadows told Moore.
After much discussion, the council members approved a motion by Meadows recommending the following funding by the TDC: $200,000 for landscaping and $228,000 for pathways on Phase I of the project. Meadows commented that the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) would be looking at additional funding for the project.
New commercial and logo
Jon Ervin, TDC director of marketing and communications, displayed a new television commercial promoting south Walton County, featuring a variety of parts of the destination and a sound track by local musicians.
He also presented the results of surveys conducted on proposals for a new TDC logo and revealed the recommendation of the TDC Marketing Committee on the matter.
The logos considered had included a slight variation of the TDC’s current “South Walton” cursive logo and also one of the previous logo, which had featured three red-and-white umbrellas.
While the three-umbrella logo had scored far higher for initial reaction among local residents, a high percentage of both visitors and potential visitors had preferred another option, the logo identified as the “Sun Wave.” A logo using half of an umbrella had scored next highest among visitors, potential visitors, and locals alike.
Ervin reported that the marketing committee had voted six to three for the Sun Wave as top choice and had ranked the logo incorporating the single umbrella second.
He volunteered to place both logos on items such as tee shirts and bring those before the TDC for further evaluation. There were some comments in favor of that course of action, but Meadows voiced support moving forward with the Sun Wave, based on the survey data and committee recommendation. “It’s truly unique, I think,” she said of the logo.
In a split vote, the council approved Meadows’ motion to recommend the Sun Wave. Based on that approval, the recommendation for the TDC to make the change to that logo was scheduled to be presented to the BCC on Aug. 12 for final consideration.
Beach vending discussion
Following reports from TDC staff and other discussion, the last topic for discussion was brought up by TDC member Kurt Tape. Tape said he had heard many complaints from visitors about beach vendors.
“What used to be a nuisance has become a crisis…the public beaches have been taken over by these vendors,” he asserted.
Tape identified not allowing vendors at public beach accesses as the solution.
Meadows responded that there are 62 vendors on the beaches. Commissioners have been receiving many complaint emails about altercations involving vending, she continued. Some vendors have been refusing to follow any rules, Meadows said. She said she would be suggesting to the BCC that they task TDC and administrative staff with evaluating the situation and coming up with options to be presented to the BCC to address problems with vending. “We think it’s a privilege to vend on public beaches,” Meadows concluded.
TDC action items are subject to final consideration by the BCC.
By DOTTY NIST