TDC gets an earful at forum

Deborah Wheeler | The Walton Sun

Some South Walton residents believe we don't need more tourists — just better crowd control.

"We don't want everybody here. The problem is you need to get rid of the bottom tier,” said 32-year resident Sherry McCall. “Let them go to Panama City. We don't want them here."

These comments and many others came Wednesday morning from some of those who attended a workshop organized by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners. The forum-style "workshop" that was held at the Bayou Arts Center off County Road 393N saw a full house of about 50 residents ready to speak their minds.

The purpose of the workshop was for the public to discuss the mission and strategic direction of the TDC.

The public was not shy in sharing its opinions about the job the TDC is doing, beginning with Sue Parsonnet, a 25-year resident of Inlet Beach, who said she is concerned about the money being spent.

"There are so many people here now that we can't move," she said. "But the TDC is spending money on things such as Emeril and they want to take away our three-way stop and put in a roundabout. The TDC is totally out of control."

The TDC’s arrangement with the Food Network chef, who lives in Sandestin, was also mentioned by Jack Slattery. "The TDC is bringing in more people but putting in place no infrastructure to handle them. We need parking so people can get to the beach instead of spending money on cooking shows," he said, adding he would like to see the bike path finished, particularly on Chat Holley.

It was noted in advance that the workshop was not to include discussion about the proposed new TDC building, potential site considerations, or needs of visitor center relocation as this will be covered in a separate workshop at a later date. However, the crowd didn’t always heed the warning.

"I question their spending priorities, especially with spending for a new building," said Buz Livingston, who also writes a financial column for The Walton Sun. "Tourists don't use the TDC building. When I am traveling I stop at a TDC for the clean restrooms. We pull up for our travels on our smart phones. It's about priorities." Livingston also pressed for more budget transparency online.

Others in the crowd voiced their concern for the area's infrastructure.

Bob Hudson, with the Walton County Taxpayers Association, said he believes the TDC is efficient, but there needs to be a balance in the quest to attract tourists.

"We have attracted a lot of people to this area, but you can only put so many people on the beach," he said. "We need to find a way to expand our offerings past the beach. If we can't accommodate people in a hospitable fashion, there's no point in luring more."

Others agreed that the answers may lie in expanding attractions past our snowy white beaches — such as into the cultural realm.

Cultural Arts Association Executive Director Jennifer Steele pointed out the group produces events and receives funds from the TDC, but that it would like to see a strategic plan to make Walton County into more of a cultural arts destination.

District 5 County Commissioner Cindy Meadows, who was the only elected county commissioner present, admitted she doesn't have all the answers.

"I know there are spring break issues here and we have 5,000 houses listed for rent on VRBO. There are street signs falling down for people spending $10,000 a week to see. There's no maintenance on bike paths where it should be pristine. We're all in this together. I think that instead of marketing heads in beds, we need to focus on the quality of experience for people who live here…” she said.

Sandy Luchtefeld feels we need better enforcement in the form of ordinances, ticketing, and arrests.

Others tried to separate the missions of the Walton Area Chamber of Commerce and the TDC.

“There is a conflict in the TDC marketing our area and the chamber's role," Bill Bard said. "It should be a chamber function to get people here. I don't understand the difference in the roles between the TDC and the Chamber of Commerce… What's the distinction?"

Tracy Louthain worked for the TDC for six years and she said there is a disconnect between the TDC and the community. She believes there should be more workshops held and that the TDC needs to invest in opportunities like art and things outside the beach — with less focus on destination marketing except in shoulder seasons and more on management.

Residents also keyed in mass transit, suggesting a 30A tram service and a bus route designed to bring people from the north end of the county to the south.

The workshop was the fourth of four held this week, with Herb Marlowe of Analytica facilitating.

It was noted that the two workshops held in the north end of the county drew little interest.

"This has been the most passionate one," said Marlowe.

Cindy Meadows agreed. "This was the best session of the four and a large group voicing very astute commentary on the town's economy and quality of life. I hope it results in connecting the TDC back to the community.”

Marlowe will give the resulting raw data from the workshop to the BCC and TDC. He noted that his job is not to make recommendations but to record what the public says.

Even though listening to more than an hour of criticism of the organization she leads, at the end of the meeting TDC Executive Director Dawn Moliterno said she thought the discussion “was great.”

"It's a beginning," she said.