The Walton County Tourist Development Council held a strategic planning meeting April 1 and heard the public's thoughts on what improvements might need to be made.

The open meeting came after surveys were sent out in the area.

The survey looked at six different areas.

The six areas explored were branding, marketing of our area, visitor experience, beach renourishment and maintenance, capitol improvements, and organization.

More than 1,200 people responded and most were local, full-time residents, said TDC Executive Director Jim Bagby.

"This was the most responses we have ever received," he said.

From the survey, the three biggest issues that emerged were parking, communicating everything that makes us special (beyond the beach messaging), and the need to increase beach trash collection.

The parking situation in South Walton has been studied and results are being drafted and will be presented at a public meeting April 23 at 5:30 p.m. at Le Ciel at Sandestin.

Bagby wasn't ready to release full details of the study's results, but he did say the area needs to identify parking places we already have, and pave right of ways that people are already using for parking.

The second thing that surfaced most was locals would like to see better communication about everything that makes this area special. While that does include our sugar white sand and beautiful beaches, locals would like to see a step up in promoting beyond the beach messaging of ecotourism.

Responders want the Beaches of South Walton promoted in the proven markets of the Southeast, as well as emerging national markets, which Bagby said is already being done. Considered their core markets are Atlanta, Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth, Mobile and the Gulf Coast, Nashville, Montgomery, Jackson, Birmingham, New Orleans, and Memphis.

However, Houston, Dallas, and Nashville are still new to being considered part of our core markets, so they are also listed on the "emerging" list the TDC pitches to, along with Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore/D.C., and even New York.

Under branding, Bagby said he sees a need for better destination identification with an easily identifiable and readable logo. The well-liked three red and white beach umbrellas that were the Beaches of South Walton's logo for many years but done away with during the previous administration, are being brought back.

Bagby said there was a call to focus more on digital advertising and using social media sites, and to encourage partner links.

Residents feel there is a need for improving trash collection on the beach, and to increase off-season event support.

There was also talk of improving the roadways and medians, and the need to increase beach safety. But, Bagby pointed out that most of the county's beaches are private and public funds cannot be used to supply lifeguards for private beaches at resorts.

Under represented in the survey were artists, said Bagby, with only 29.5 percent of respondents voicing support for a multi-purpose public museum/art gallery for shows or events.  

One thing that was surprising, he said, was the support to keep the 1/2 cent tax and repurpose it for capitol improvements. Sixty-one percent were for keeping it.

"Our bed tax is only 4.5 percent," he said, "which is less than our neighbors to the east and west, but it did surprise me that people were in favor of keeping it."

Whether the half cent is kept and repurposed or not will go to the county commission, said Bagby.

Currently, strategic plans and budgets are being worked on with discussions of where to focus.

"We're addressing concerns and getting direction from the board," he said.

Changes already being worked on include a new logo, and marketing beyond the beach.

The TDC's current website is four years old and will be completely redone with the new logo.

Bagby will go to Nashville in May and Dallas in September to help market South Walton's offerings.

The TDC is working with Waste Management to schedule pick ups on turnover days for highest density.

"We're working with Waste Management to find solutions to the spring break /summer season trash challenge, particularly on the weekends during turnovers," he said.

Off-season event funding has been increased, and increasing the number of beach accesses is being looked at.

The use of shuttles on 30A could possibly help alleviate congestion and parking issues.

"There were no surprises that came out of the survey and meeting except the support to keep the half-cent tax," said Bagby. "The rest is nothing new, just things people have talked about for years. We are going to increase our efforts in these areas and hopefully have changes in place by the end of September."