By LEAH STRATMANN
At a time when counties across Florida are being forced to tighten budgetary belts to make up for the loss of property tax revenue, the Tourist Development Council (TDC) voted last week to discard more than $260,000 worth of signs after unrelenting pressure from several scenic corridor groups.
Chairman John Gillis fired the first salvo of the morning by saying the TDC represents the community and vision for the community. “We have a mission to accomplish and we do not wish to act outside of the interests of those doing business here. We felt we were making a decision representing the community regarding the signs and did our homework over the years. In the end there was some sort of gap between the TDC and citizens and I think we need to replace the signs along 30A,” he said. The more than 50 people met his comment with a raucous round of applause in attendance.
Gillis said he hoped the signs could be salvaged and retooled so the funds already spent will not be a total loss and said that in securing new signs, “some funding partnerships would make it more palatable.”
Board member Maurice Gilbert said the signs should be taken from 30A and the feeder roads. “I think it can be done for a reasonable sum,” he opined.
“I wish the community would be as vocal about all the other signs that clutter the roadway,” said board member Ken Crawford.
Board member Mary Brown said, “We need wayfinding signs for visitors. The signs have been very helpful. I believe there are restrictions on what can and cannot be done with wayfinding signs and I want to keep these signs up through the season while the community groups work together for new signs. I don’t think the feeder road signs detract from 30A,” she concluded.
Another board member, Mary Jo Tommasn agreed with Brown. “It is important that visitors reach the beach and the signs should be left up on the feeder roads,” she said.
Interim TDC executive director Sonny Mares said the safety and directional signs for the Timpoochee Trail, which are now being created, should be looked at to see if new signs for the roadways can incorporate the elements of these signs.
“Requests for the community signs to come down should be honored,” Gillis reiterated, referring to requests from Seaside and Watercolor to remove the signs from those communities.
Dave Rauschkolb, a member of the Scenic Pride Initiative, one of the groups opposed to the signs, said all of the opposing groups should get together and decide on signage and bring it before the public as soon as possible. “A sub-family of signs can be incorporated to accomplish the branding,” he said.
Citizen Theo Farnsworth asked, “When does community signage end? What signs is everybody going to agree on? These signs blend in more than you think. The TDC is listening to a vocal few when the reality is that traffic is flowing much better than before the signs were up.” This comment was met with jeering and laughter from the audience.
Board member Crawford made a motion to remove all the signs on 30A and the feeder roads now. Brown asked Crawford to amend his motion to remove the community signs now, but to leave up those signs that help people find their way. “We need to serve our visitors,” she said.
Rauschkolb countered this suggestions saying, “Any blue signs on 30A should come down.”
“We need to leave up the signs necessary to do business, but a time frame must be made,” commented board member Ken Morris.
Crawford refused to modify his motion, but the motion failed to pass, opening the way for a new motion by Brown to remove the big blue community signs but to leave the wayfinding signs and adjust them to proper heights as a temporary measure. This motion was passed.
Mares told the assembled crowd the TDC must submit a budget to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) by May 16 to ensure there is funding for new signs. Brown pointed out the TDC has already funded the signs and wanted some firm numbers from Rauschkolb on how much money might be forthcoming from opposition groups. This question went unanswered, although Rauschkolb said the groups are prepared to raise funds for new signs.
“We slid under the door in funding for these signs and we may well be in violation of the law,” said board member Mike Stange. In addition to the wayfinding and community signs, the TDC has advanced $90,000 for the Timpoochee signs. “The task is to find the money,” Gillis observed.
Four cents of each dollar spent on short-term rentals such as condos or hotel rooms is funneled to the coffers of the TDC. The fourth cent is earmarked for new product development and the signs were deemed proper use of these funds in helping the TDC to brand the “Beaches of South Walton” as a destination.
TDC members are appointed by other TDC members and each of the people filling the nine positions represent some part of the tourist industry and must reside in Walton County.
“According to our research, 92 percent of the visitors find the signs very helpful,” said Tracy Louthain, public relations spokesman for the TDC.
In the end it will be the BCC making the final vote on the matter since in effect they hold the purse strings. The Herald called each of the commissioners to see if they had heard from their constituents and how a future vote might go.
Commissioner Kenneth Pridgen was unaware of the TDC vote to remove the signs, but when informed said, “The TDC hasn’t even talked to us about what they are doing. I’m assuming the decision of the TDC has to come back to the BCC. There’s a concern about wasting taxpayer money.”
“Until they present it to us and give us the facts and figures I can’t say. I will wait and make my decision when everything is presented to me and I hope they will have a plan on how to use the signs. I think the groups are planning to help fund the new signs which is a step in the right direction, commented Commissioner Sara Commander. “People should understand it is not ad valorem money, but it is tax money. The sad part of this is it was so long between when the signs were presented to the public and when they were put up.”
Likewise Commissioner Cindy Meadows is unsure of how things will go. “I don’t really know. The TDC board decided to purchase the signs and has now decided to remove them and use them elsewhere. I would think the BCC would honor the wishes of the TDC and not overturn the decision, however we do have to approve future budgets and this issue has not come before us yet,” she said.
A call to Commissioner Brannon was not returned, and Jones declined to comment.
On April 10, Mares sent an email to each of the commissioners, saying in part the TDC the board voted to take down the wayfinding signs along CR-30A and the connector roads leading to CR-30A from U.S. 98:
“This action was precipitated by the strong and overwhelming outcry of dissent about the signs by citizens representing groups identified with Friends of the Timpoochee Trail, Friends of 30A, South Walton Community Council, Scenic 30A Corridor, and the Scenic Pride Initiative. In addition we received personal letters from the developers of Seaside, Alys Beach, WaterColor, and WaterSound telling us they wanted to opt-out of our sign program.
“Our board wants the directional signs on the connector roads to stay up to assist our visitors until a new plan is adopted in cooperation with the above groups. We would immediately begin the removal of the “community” signs along 30A, and the “directional” signs on 30A with the exception of a few strategically located.
“The TDC will place the signs in our maintenance yard where they will be secure as we look for alternate ways to use the signs or broker them to other organizations.
“It is my understanding we do not need to request this action be placed on the agenda for the upcoming BCC meeting, and that we may begin the removal process in accordance with the action of the TDC. Please let me know if this meets with the approval of the Board of County Commissioners.”
By LEAH STRATMANN