Will competition hurt the little guy? Walton commissioners seek new beach vending manager

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

SANTA ROSA BEACH — With the current contract set to expire at the end of October, Walton County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to solicit requests for proposals to manage the vendor program on the county's public beaches.

Private beach vendors provide a number of services to visitors, from rental of beach chairs and umbrellas to hosting beach bonfires.

The beach vendor program currently is managed under contract with the county by the South Walton Beach Service Association (SWBSA), a nonprofit organization chaired by Phillip Poundstone, who also operates a separate beach vending business.

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As the chair of the SWBSA, Poundstone is responsible for ensuring that his company and the 19 other companies that provide services on public beaches do so within the terms of the county's beach activities ordinance. The county also has a role, with county code department personnel also watching the activities of the vendors and issuing citations for violations.

Tuesday's move by the commission came after a beach vendor, unnamed at the meeting, approached county officials prior to Tuesday's meeting about the possibility of having the soon-to-expire vendor management contract open to interested bidders.

A proposal to issue a request for proposals for the vendor management contract was subsequently put on the "consent agenda" for Tuesday's meeting. As a consent agenda item, the request for proposals would have been handled in bulk with other items in which there was agreement among commissioners

Umbrellas and chairs supplied by private beach vendors line the sand Tuesday afternoon at Miramar Beach in South Walton County. County commissioners voted Tuesday to soliciting proposals from businesses interested in managing the vendor program on public beaches.

But as the result of a request from an unspecified source, the issue was placed on the commission's regular agenda, resulting in more than 90 minutes of discussion, some of it from Poundstone and at least one other vendor working under the current vendor management program.

Current vendors are concerned that by issuing a request for proposals, the county could opt to shift the managed vendor program to a business that wouldn't follow the SWBSA model of splitting beach business among a number of smaller vendors, and could take all of the beach vending business for itself.

"I've bled and sweat over this for three years," Poundstone told commissioners of the SWBSA's work. "We have done everything possible to do a great job."

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Then, looking toward the possibility of a single vendor handling all of the county's public beaches — vendors still could solicit business along the county's privately owned sections of beach — Poundstone said, "Please do not put this out for bid, I beg of you, because it's going to hurt many, many people. ... What we're fighting for here is these smaller guys who depend on beach vending for their mortgage."

Poundstone said vendors would be willing to discuss paying higher fees to the county, fees that thus far this year have brought more than $250,000 to help fund county code office operations.

Also addressing the commission was Frank Wright, a retiree who helps to operate a small beach vending business that is his son's sole source of income. Wright argued that with a single beach vendor, "You know what's going to happen with prices, especially if they're proposing (in response to the county's request for proposals) to pay the county a lot of money. ... Prices are going to go through the roof. Complaints are going to go through the roof."

A beach vendor sits in his area of the beach along Scenic Gulf Drive in Miramar Beach.

Commissioners, although clearly sympathetic to the concerns, nonetheless opted for the issuance of a request for proposals in connection with the expiring contract.

The unanimous decision clearly was based on the advice of interim county counsel Clay Adkinson, who told commissioners that simply continuing the existing arrangement would violate the county's purchasing policy.

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However, in the motion from Commissioner Danny Glidewell approved by the full commission, commissioners staked out their right to review and score any proposals that might be received before exercising their ultimate authority to award a new contract.

"Nothing stops you from choosing to rehire" SWBSA as the county's beach vending manager, Adkinson also told commissioners. But he added that not sending out a request for proposals would raise questions about why other potential vendors aren't allowed to compete.

Adkinson said that in scoring any response to the county's request for proposals, they could award additional points to responding entities that described a business model that, like the SWBSA approach, incorporates a number of beach vending businesses.

Prior to the commission's vote, Glidewell worried that if the county didn't follow its purchasing policy as outlined by Adkinson, the government could face legal action.

"This is just business," Glidewell told Poundstone and other beach vendors, "I don't think putting out a request for proposals is in any way reflecting that you're not doing a good job."

Going further to address the concerns of current beach vendors, Glidewell said, "We're advertising (for proposals) to manage the vendors on the public beaches, not (for proposals) to be the vendor on the public beaches."