By DOTTY NIST
“What the TDC ‘sells’, is what we the people here have saved…and I think that deserves to be heard,” proclaimed Claire Bannerman, a south Walton County resident for over four decades. Bannerman spoke of the Point Washington State Forest, Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, Deer Lake State Park, the coastal dune lakes, and other parks and natural areas that make up a large part of the area south of the bay in Walton County.
Bannerman’s comment came at the Dec. 3 public workshop on the role and mission of the South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) at the South Walton Annex, where community members called for being included to a greater extent in the tourism council’s planning process, including decisions on the way the area is marketed to potential visitors.
The workshop was one of a series hosted by the TDC to gather input and take questions from the public. The meetings had been requested by the members of the tourism council. Resulting data is to be used in the preparation of the strategic plan prepared by the TDC each year. The meetings were led by professional facilitator Herb Marlowe of Analytica, from Newberry, Fla. Marlowe highighted the importance of determining the values of the community as a starting point in the planning process.
Well over 30 community members attended, along with TDC Executive Director Dawn Moliterno, TDC staff members, TDC member Scott Russell, and Walton County District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows.
The workshop was devoted to public comment and questions, with Marlowe summarizing periodically and a person assisting him typing up the summaries, which were projected on a screen.
A number of attendees expressed concern about TDC’s current decision-making process. South Walton county homeowner Charles Wilson urged for the process to “start at the beginning” and involve stakeholders.
Seagrove resident and design professional Mark Schnell encouraged the TDC to actively engage the community, something he maintained had not been done in the past, as opposed to meeting minimum requirements for announcing meetings. While sometimes viewed as serving only bed tax collectors, it is important to remember that the TDC is a community agency, Schnell emphasized.
Community leader Bob Hudson was critical of the move two years ago to change the TDC regular meeting schedule from monthly to quarterly. “I think that has been detrimental to what I call transparency and citizen involvement,” Hudson opined, adding that the council often seems to “get ahead of the community.”
Hudson was of the opinion that the quarterly meetings resulted in “overload” for council members because of the amount of material they are required to review at one time and the number of decisions to be made at each meeting. “They are really stressed,” he observed.
Walton County native Glenda Wood urged for a “consumer member” to be included on the TDC board.
South Walton resident and artist Susan Lucas asked for structural changes to the TDC to be researched that could encourage community involvement. She also urged for “looking at the big picture” for the county, with tourism as a part, saying that she would like to be part of that direction. “I would like to see the success of the TDC not measured by heads in beds,” Lucas added.
Wood called for the creation of a master plan for the county and incorporating tourism as part of that plan. Many areas have such plans in place that can be referenced, she noted, and it is not necessary to create one “from scratch.” “It’s all out there,” Wood commented.
“I see the TDC as a spoke on the wheel,” said bed tax collector Eileen McDermott.
Bob Hudson called for addressing how the county’s capital investments are fitted with tourism and what is the optimum capacity as far as the number of tourists.
Miramar Beach resident Sandy Luchtefeld recalled that the county had prepared 10- and 20-year plans in the past but observed that there is a tendency to forget about those plans and not revisit them, as should be done.
Walton County has not done a strategic plan in a number of years, but there is renewed interest in doing so. A vision plan for Walton County was spearheaded by Walton County District Commissioner Sara Comander, and update sessions were conducted earlier this year for that plan.
TDC members create a strategic plan for their organization on an annual basis.
A number of attendees were critical of what they saw as too much of a focus on attracting tourists at the expense of managing and providing for the tourists once they were here. South Walton County community leader Jacquee Markel called for careful consideration of infrastructure needs created by the tourist population and preparation for those needs.
A number of speakers wondered if what was needed from the TDC had changed over time. They urged for determining the true needs of the community from the organization.
Luchtefeld warned against attracting tourists who behaved in an undesirable way. This, combined with lack of code enforcement, has become a problem in her neighborhood, she said.
Cindy Meadows spoke of “spring break problems,” including several cars being firebombed in south Walton County over the past two seasons. She said she would be scheduling a forum for residents to tell about such experiences. Meadows said that the question is how these occurrences can be addressed, especially through the TDC, so that this will not happen again.
Sherry McCall, a 32-year resident, declared that she did not want to see Walton County “turn into Panama City or Destin.” “We don’t need the masses,” she said.
Miramar Beach resident and planning professional Mike Flynt warned against “killing the thing that we love.”
Eileen McDermott called for the marketing of the area in a way that the community wants it to be marketed and consistent with a long-term plan.
Mark Schnell complained that current branding efforts are sometimes too “one size fits all,” and do not recognize the wide range of “what makes up South Walton.”
Several people spoke of the area’s natural resources, its magnificent environment and landscape, and the need for preservation. There were suggestions for the setting up of a preservation tax or fund….
Read the full story in the Dec. 13, 2012 edition of the Herald Breeze.