By DOTTY NIST
A call for vendors to submit business proposals for Grayton Beach State Park has been rescinded in the wake of opposition from the public.
On June 24, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) had issued a news release calling for potential vendors to submit business plans for services “to enhance visitor services at Grayton Beach State Park.”
Among possible services listed were food and beverage service, merchandise resale, recreational equipment rental, and event management services.
A mandatory meeting for potential vendors/concessionaires had been scheduled for July 10 at the state park.
Five months earlier, DEP had issued a call for business plans from potential concession operators for Henderson Beach State Park in neighboring Okaloosa County, and a vendor had subsequently been selected to provide concessions. However that initiative was negated due to the efforts of State Representative Matt Gaetz—who had received complaints from constituents about the concession plans—and State Senator Aaron Bean (R-Fernandina Beach).
The legislators succeeded in attaching an amendment to a bill, HB 7093. The amendment provided for DEP to be prohibited from granting new agreements for concessions serving visitors in state parks meeting specific criteria. These were parks offering beach access and containing less than 7,000 linear feet of shoreline, if the type of concession was available within 1,500 feet of the park’s boundaries. The bill was approved by both house of the Florida Legislature and was signed by Gov. Rick Scott.
Although Grayton Beach State Park has only approximately one mile of shoreline, the new restrictions, as written, were considered to apply only to two state parks, Henderson Beach State Park and Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park in Key West.
The call to potential vendors for Grayton Beach State Park also drew a negative response from the community. Opposition letters and phone calls were fired off to DEP, the Florida Park Service, legislators, the media, local officials, and the governor.
In a letter to the editor, Santa Rosa Beach resident Glenda Wood opined that she found it “strange” that DEP would make the claim that commercial vendors would “enhance” Grayton Beach State Park, “one of the most pristine natural state parks in Northwest Florida.”
“Do we really want to lose that in exchange for being able to buy a sandwich, a bag of ice, or a souvenir tee shirt inside the park…instead of purchasing those items from well-established local independent businesses located less than half a mile from the park?” she asked.
On July 3, Florida Senate President Don Gaetz issued a news release reporting that DEP had cancelled the plan to allow concessions at Grayton Beach State Park and had called off the meeting for potential vendors.
“The potential for extensive business activity on the beach provoked calls to the offices of both Representative (Matt) Gaetz and Senator Gaetz, who immediately contacted DEP officials in Tallahassee,” Gaetz noted.
“We appreciate the responsiveness of DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard and the department’s willingness to reconsider its decision,” the two legislators jointly stated, adding, “Grayton Beach is a wonderful, unspoiled example of ‘old Florida’ and we want to preserve it for locals and visitors alike.”
Later the same day, DEP confirmed the change of course, advising in a news release, “After careful and thoughtful analysis, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has decided to withdraw the Call for Business Plans for a concessionaire at Grayton Beach State Park in Santa Rosa Beach. As a result, the on-site meeting scheduled for Thursday, July 10 for potential proposers of business plans has been cancelled.”
While the possibility of new vending appears to be put to rest for Henderson Beach State Park and Grayton Beach State Park, it remains for additional parks, including one less than 20 miles east of Grayton, and existing vending operations are in place at parks statewide.
According to DEP spokeswoman Mara Burger, there are currently more than 90 concession operations within Florida’s state parks. Burger commented that these operations generate revenue for the state and create jobs for the private sector.
“Concessionaires are valuable partners that provide goods and services to visitors,” she noted.
Burger explained that firewood and ice have been available for purchase by campers in Grayton Beach State Park in the past and that visitors have been able to rent canoes at the ranger station. The wood and ice are sold by the Friends of Grayton Beach State Park volunteer group.
“A coin laundry has been available at the campground. Local bike shops may deliver rental bikes to park patrons,” Burger continued.
“Concession services are not planned for all parks,” Burger said. She explained that a number of factors are looked at prior to considering concession services for a state park, in order to determine whether the services would be appropriate and successful. There must be enough visitors who would buy a particular service in order to make offering the service viable, Burger noted. “We look at seasonality and amenities already available at the park,” she detailed.
Analyzing potential for a concession operation at a particular location usually begins with the approved unit management plan for the park, Burger commented.
A unit management plan is approved for each park every 10 years through a process that incorporates public input. Grayton Beach State Park’s most recent unit management plan, approved in 2013, recommends the addition of a camp store concession to carry some items currently offered at the ranger station, and additional items. The plan also recommends a mobile concession in the park’s main beach use area.
“The Department issues a Call for Business Plans, holds an on-site meeting, accepts proposals, reviews those proposals, negotiates with one or more companies, enters into an agreement with one or more companies offering the best services for visitors at the best price for the state of Florida, and then the operations begin,” Burger detailed.
Aside from the call for vendor proposals for Grayton Beach State Park, which has now been withdrawn, Burger said that DEP has issued calls for business plans for two other parks in the Panhandle. Through one of those processes, DEP is seeking a concessionaire to operate the Wakulla Lodge at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, with vendor proposals due on July 9 for that state park.
In addition, vendor proposals were due on July 2 in connection with a call for business plans for Camp Helen State Park in southwestern Bay County.
Camp Helen’s most recent unit management plan recommended a new combined visitor center/concession building, along with a “mobile concession structure” in conjunction with a new day-use area.
The park’s current unit management plan was approved in 2014.
“The Department has no plans to issue other Calls for Business Plans in the near future for any state parks in the Panhandle,” Burger said.
By DOTTY NIST