As South Walton's visitors and residents continue to grow in number each year all are faced with the issue of how to get around in an automobile in an area that grew too quickly.
According to Walton County Tourist Development Council, 2016 saw 3.69 million visitors come to South Walton, and 3.89 million visitors in 2017 for an increase of 200,000 visitors in one year. Fortunately, much of that growth came in the shoulder seasons, judging by bed-tax collection increases, said the TDC's David Demerest.
While various entities have discussed the issue in the past, the problem has continued to grow.
TDC Executive Director Jay Tusa introduced to Walton County Commissioners on Monday representatives from a firm that specializes in handling parking solutions for communities such as South Walton.
Greg Darden, business development director for Structured Parking Solutions based in Pensacola, asked commissioners for permission to interact with county staff to come up with a parking and mobility plan.
The TDC began working with Darden on the county's needs in March 2017 and over the year held four public workshops and met with property owners to determine concerns and needs of the public as well as what the challenges are.
Darden said his company started as a parking company and shifted to transportation.
"We help solve mobility problems," he said.
Mobility could include parking, shuttles, signage, or bicycles.
"We looked at this project two years ago," said Darden. "We want to move towards a system of access to the beaches via park and ride as much as possible. We have to shift towards park and ride and we have started to lay groundwork."
Darden said he has already had conversations with Seaside Institute and Northwest Florida Transportation Corridor Authority to form a singular voice to bring back to commissioners to ask for money and grants as they develop parking and long-term goals.
Darden is also looking at promoting pedestrian and bike ways.
"We're asking for consideration from you to allow us to work with staff to develop a managed parking system and to begin development of a shuttle system to bring back to you," said Darden.
Darden suggested the first 30 minutes of public transportation per day would be free with a $15 daily max. He also suggested creating a parking pass that would not guarantee a parking place for $35 a year.
Darden said the programs could be cost neutral to the county.
He suggests getting started as soon as possible because putting a program in place normally takes three months to get it up and running.
After working with staff Darden plans to bring back proposed funding, a shuttle proposition, a proposed transportation program, and he has begun looking at properties for parking.
Whatever money is taken in through fees, Darden proposes could stay in a revenue account to ensure a positive cash flow even during down times.
The firm's work has been on a pro bono basis for Walton County and if hired to initiate and run the system, a contract would then be in place.
Resident Coy Bowman suggested the county limit the number of people allowed in, and that only visitors should be charged for parking.
Other residents told commissioners that they fully support the approach.
"It looks like a great plan," said Reynolds Henderson. "Parking has to be resolved before we can do anything."
Bob Brooke also voiced support of the study, but he does not support charging citizens.
Darden said the real reason for the fee is to create value, much like charging for a dog permit for the beach.
"It's not going to have a detrimental impact if you don't charge locals," he said.
Commissioners voted 5-0 to allow Darden and his company to interact with staff to construct a parking and mobility solution to be brought back before commissioners.
Darden anticipates a full document in three or four weeks.