By DOTTY NIST
A strategic plan document compiled by South Walton Tourist Development (TDC) advertising agency Zehnder Communications was presented at the tourism council’s April 9 meeting at the Walton County District 5 office.
TDC Executive Director Dawn Moliterno noted that the agency had attempted to put the direction of the council provided during its strategic planning session two months earlier into the document.
Included were the exploration of a public/private partnership for a sports complex in south Walton County, the exploration of available properties for a new visitor center and TDC offices, and the assumption of responsibility by the TDC for maintenance of the south Walton County bike paths, along with a bike path construction project. The latter project is to connect with a pedestrian/bicycle bridge across Western Lake.
Moliterno said staff was recommending that the TDC increase its yearly budget for 2013-14 by approximately $1 million to fund the bike path maintenance—and that $1.357 million be pulled from reserves for bike path construction.
Also recommended, she noted, was an amendment to the current year budget to utilize funds previously set aside for parking lot projects that had been eliminated, in order to start now with items such as wayfinding signs, bike path renovation, and painting of beach access restrooms.
TDC member Scott Russell asked if the additions to the budget that Moliterno had discussed meant that the TDC would maintain the bike paths “moving forward.” He was unsure whether that had been the direction of the council members.
Moliterno responded yes, that all the items council members had indicated they would be interested in exploring had been included/imbedded in the strategic plan and budget. The exception was the “Science on a Sphere” partnership possibility, which had been withdrawn by the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center.
“There is a real changing of the guard here,” TDC member Richard Veldman observed with reference to the TDC taking over responsibility of the bike paths from the county. There was discussion on equipment previously used by the county to maintain the bike path being transferred to the TDC.
Bob Hudson urged for transparency to be improved regarding the TDC budget.
Hudson also questioned the use of TDC funds to contract services to clean up trash along the beach on private property at a rate of $500 per day. According to Michelle Ray, TDC finance officer, the cleaning services were contracted for a number of weeks during spring break. Moliterno commented that then-County Administrator Bob Halfhill had required the TDC to sign off on the contract for the cleaning. She said this occurred while she was out of town.
Hudson was concerned that tourism council members, who are responsible for oversight of TDC expenditures, had not been notified of the contract. Moliterno responded that the invoice for the services had not been processed yet.
She explained that there had been massive crowds in Miramar Beach, leaving debris that TDC beach cleaning crews had been unable to remove without assistance. The cost had been under $25,000, the limit of the TDC director’s spending authority, Moliterno added.
Suzanne Harris commented that getting the debris cleaned from the beach was a good thing, since it was damaging for pictures of debris-filled beaches in Walton County to circulate. However she called for better planning for this type of situation. Harris also brought up the issue of equity, since some beachfront areas pay for their own beach cleaning.
Hudson warned that once word got out that the TDC was paying for beach cleaning on private property, other areas would expect this service also.
TDC Chair/District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows commented that it would be helpful to have a policy on this issue. TDC Attorney Clay Adkinson offered to provide a proposed policy at the next TDC meeting
Tory Bradley, who works on Miramar Beach, also addressed the TDC about trash on the beach, including piles of 20-30 beer cans being buried in the sand daily during spring break. She said residents and businesses had mounted a grass-roots effort to combat trash—and that businesses had been sending out their employees to pick up debris.
“The beach, whether public or private, is being trashed,” Bradley said. She pledged to do whatever she could as a concerned citizen. Bradley suggested an educational campaign by the TDC on how beach trash hurts the environment and negatively impacts sea turtles.
In examining the TDC’s proposed budget, Meadows said she had not previously been aware of a $150,000 item in the budget in connection with Emeril Lagasse’s television program. “I will vote against that,” she said.
Moliterno said the item was a second-year renewal for Lagasse’s program in a partnership between the TDC and Visit Florida. She added that the TDC’s media plan would be presented in detail on May 14.
Meadows was concerned that the TDC was being asked to approve a budget without having seen the media plan.
Moliterno replied that the TDC would be able to change the make-up of the media plan when it was presented.
TDC member Amy Wise-Coble said she thought the partnership with Emeril was beneficial for the TDC.
Meadows responded that there was no empirical data showing that people had visited the area as a result of Emeril’s program.
“When you get to a brand, all you can talk about is reach,” said Russell. He said it is difficult to track whether a program influences visitation unless a poll of visitors is conducted….
Read the full story in the April 18, 2013 edition of the Herald Breeze.