After The Walton Sun's article about a proposed sports complex for South Walton hit the streets last weekend, the community was abuzz with comments about the proposition's pros and cons, and many had questions.
Miramar Beach resident Bob Doty is definitely onboard.
"A new sports complex is an excellent idea, especially if it has amenities for adults also like roller blade paths, pickleball courts and tennis courts. Where is a public facility in South Walton to play tennis? Even if we get just the fields it would help. Lets all get behinds this sports complex," he said.
Rosemary Beach's Dave Rauschkolb agrees. "I think a sports complex in South Walton would be a wonderful and needed addition to our community. I fully support this," he said.
"Excellent idea," said Art Hill. "I hope I am correct in perceiving overwhelming South Walton permanent resident support (in excess of 90 percent), and that local resident use would follow the proven example set by Destin's City Sports complex."
"It's certainly a million times better than a fishing pier in Grayton Beach!" chimed in Seagrove's Billy McConnell.
As a public relations and marketing consultant, Michelle Uhlfelder has seen first hand what can happen when a brand has the necessary money to market, but fails to grow in the right directions in order to support the brand mission and infrastructure.
"I think our community is at such a crossroads," she said. "We should consider providing enhancements in order to draw more full-time residents here that in turn better support our off-season economy and grow our community in South Walton. I am thrilled that we might be able to fund this much needed sports complex from the bed tax funds. If this project materializes, we would be investing in a long-standing structure for our entire community to enjoy. From what I can see of the proposal thus far, I appreciate the out-of-the-box thinking that would benefit both the South Walton full-time residents and visitors."
But others were not shy in expressing opposition to such an idea.
"Let me preface by saying I coached little league baseball for umpteen years, refereed high school basketball for a dozen plus years and ejected people from gymnasiums from Pensacola, Florida to Pelham, Georgia. I support youth sports wholeheartedly but this project is not economically feasible," said financial advisor Buz Livingston.
Realtor Tom Watson agrees. "Good concept, but very poor use of county funds. With a land donation, it may make sense, (there is no indication the land will be donated) but the county needs to budget both operating loss and capital reserve accounts to accommodate the losses and ongoing maintenance these types of facilities historically create. Bay County already controls the sports tourism business just 10 or so miles down the road at Frank Brown Park, and South Walton’s hospitality business is already performing at pre-recession levels, and caters to a tourism sector that is at a much different (higher) price point than the sports travel business that brings in families that primarily stay at affordable, limited service hotels. County funds would be much better used in expanding and improving the recreational facilities at Helen McCall Park, not to mention paving roads, expanding schools and encouraging real economic development to attract larger employers. Overall, it’s a very good concept, but a poor idea if presented as a county-funded land acquisition and development project. Seems if it was such a profitable venture that the landowner/developer would develop it themselves …," he said.
Dune Allen's Jim Radtke agreed. "Where are all these people going to stay and eat? We already seem to be at full capacity in South Walton. What kind of use is the one in Panama City Beach getting? Would we be competing against them? Once again the TDC comes up with another idea to bring in tourists. The full-time residents then get to pay more taxes for the additional fire and sheriff personnel required. Is this what South Walton wants to become, another Panama City Beach? Thunder Beach is next," he said.
Realtor Robert Monk is also concerned about the possibility of taxes being raised to support the project. "The project sounds fine to me, unless it will raise our taxes again. If there is a single reason that would encourage me to leave Walton County, it's the insanely high WC tax rates," said Monk.
But many more had questions to which they would like to hear answers.
"I am very much in favor of the sports complex if a year around covered Olympic-size swimming pool is included. Frank Brown Park missed out on the U.S. Olympic swimmers training. Maybe we could have Olympic training in our area," said Eastern Lake's Peggy Jones.
Jane Anderson of Gulf Place also wants to know about swimming pools and tennis courts. "We traveled many years and miles with our son, Chris, who played tournament tennis. There are no public facilities here for that venue or even for locals to learn the sport. I totally agree with Cindy Meadows that it needs to be funded by the TDC. Any benefit to Walton County citizens is a bonus," she said.
"I have mixed emotions about the county's purchase of Mr. Davis's land, and do feel there is a need on a much smaller scale for local children. However, my children lived and attended school in South Walton for years K-12-college and survived very well without a sports complex. But this is not an issue about our children or their needs; rather it is about attracting 'Sporting Tourism' 'Playcation' dollars to South Walton. We are a small viable beach community that has been and is still growing at rapid pace. We need to stop and think what the outcome and consequences will be — something that has not always been done. Is the goal to become a community attracting those who wish to participate in a 25,000-foot skate park, with four multi-purpose fields, six volley ball courts, with a focus on lacrosse and a 1.8 acre amphitheater in hopes of driving sporting tourism to Walton County while competing with our neighbors to the east and west, both who already have similar complexes each just 25 minutes away? I do believe more time needs to be addressed with the details of this project, the infrastructure, traffic problems that will occur, and the Walton County Sheriff's Department manpower that will be needed for events, and when not in use," said Seagrove's Susan Benton.
Realtor Bobby Johnson also agrees that the complex should be for the locals instead of tourists. "I really think it's long over due but I do not think it needs to be a focus to bring more people here. It needs to be for the people that are already here. We need this as a community. I would hope some of the focus could be to relieve some congestion on 30A by allowing this complex to be an arts venue," he suggested.
Inlet Beach's Susan Alfieri also would like to see the land used as an arts venue. "Wonderful! But surely, with all that acreage there would be room for a performing arts/recreation center along with all the proposed sports fields. Not just another amphitheater, but a well-designed covered complex that Walton County could be proud of and not have to apologize for weather-related postponements/cancellations. If tourist revenue soars with increased use of their ball parks, how would the tourist dollar extend for Walton County to match revenue drawn by Bay's Civic Center and Okaloosa's Mattie Kelly? I understand land for a performing arts center was donated a decade ago, but plans shelved for lack of commitment and funding," she said.
And others are concerned about the environmental impact.
"I would like to know more about the land being used as a wastewater spray field in the past and the environmental assessment that was done," said Seagrove's Sally Smith. "I'm assuming the intent of this complex is to attract more visitors to South Walton. I think we're getting close to maxed out with our infrastructure and ability to handle more visitors. I would like to see current visitor issues resolved before we add to them."
"Whoa, yet another land mine proposal," said Rosemary Beach's Claire Bannerman. "So many questions — what kind of parking? Landscaping? Will they do the clear cut thing again like Walmart, with all the cars parked right off the highway? Perhaps they can cleverly introduce a parking field behind the complex so we don't have yet another eyesore along the scenic highway, keeping our distinct and unusual beach charm and protecting the unique natural beauty of Highway 98. We need to have clarification on the environmental who said the 'land is good to go' and name names and tell us findings. We need park and playing fields for our basic community needs, a pool and tennis court for the public would be just downright awesome and fair. We need to better manage what we already have, maintain, preserve, protect and enhance for residents and the visiting public."
"Developed properly and marketed properly it could be a winner," said former TDC director Malcolm Patterson. But he offers a word of caution. "This business is not high-dollar business. I wonder if Walton has the number of mid- to- low-end properties to support this type of market. Bay County has the perfect fit and has done well, however, Walton is no Bay County! Without the travel sports business the complex could be a serious financial drain on the county and I am sure everyone will look to TDC monies to make it happen. Lots of serious unanswered questions."
Former sports broadcaster Dennis Dumler added, "I have always felt that a ball field should be built on any vacant piece of land ... but in reality this sounds like a great idea and one that could be of use for a lot of people in and around the South Walton area. The key thing is that it is run correctly and reflects the high caliber of life that we want to project to our visitors."
The sports complex's proponent, land-owner M.C. Davis, presented his proposal to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday. Special Project Coordinator Larry Jones was tasked with forming a fact-finding group to investigate, take a look at the property and its feasibility for the proposed use and return to the commissioners with their findings.
County Commissioner Cindy Meadows said she expects commissioners will hear Jones's findings in the next 30 to 45 days.