As the Destin harbor and boardwalk continue to draw in visitors, the team at HarborWalk Village continues to create new experiences for them to explore.
"The whole ideas is that you have to create a reason for people to come to the harbor," said Developer Peter Bos, CEO of Legendary Inc. "Our first mission was to get people to rediscover the harbor, then that's really evolved now into a much bigger statement of rediscovering Destin."
Since HarborWalk Village at the Emerald Grande opened in 2007 there has always been a mix of retailers, restaurants and shops to entertain visitors along the harbor, but as of late, the experience has become more interactive, which is by design.
Whether it's bungee trampolines, aqua spheres, a 40-foot rock wall, the new 500-foot zip line, the 80-foot free fall experience, or the 7-D interactive movie ride, there is no shortage of thrills to be had.
"It's all about experiential behavior," said Jamie Hall, HarborWalk's director of marketing. "People want to come down and they want to experience things and be involved."
"The opportunity to be engaged is there," she added. "The most exciting times that we see are the things that we've experimented with, like the street performers, mariachi bands and the Pardi Gras parades."
For a 360 degree view of Destin harbor from atop the zip line, click here.
How we got here: ‘The harbor was dead’
In 2006, Bos said a survey was conducted at Destin Commons and out of the 1,000 visitors polled, 52 percent of them didn't know Destin had a harbor, which was an "unbelievable" revelation.
Part of the problem was that prior to 1993, when the Mid-Bay Bridge opened, a majority of the visitors to Destin from Alabama, Mississippi and other drive-to markets came across the Marler Bridge and could see the harbor. Once the bridge opened, Bos said, motorists began staying on the interstate longer to avoid driving through Pensacola, Gulf Breeze and Fort Walton Beach.
"The whole traffic pattern changed," he said.
So how do you get tourists back to the harbor?
"You do free concerts, hold events, have festivals and fireworks shows," Bos said. "Seven years ago we made a conscious decision to create a festive environment."
And there has been no shortage of free, live shows at HarborWalk, which has held more than 300 shows between 2011 and 2012 alone.
"The harbor was dead," said Bos, who was the mastermind behind the Emerald Grande. "There was a time when people said 'we don't want a big, ugly building,' but if we hadn't made a grand statement, people wouldn't have come from Sandestin and Seaside to Destin."
Learning on the go
With hundreds of free events annually, the team at HarborWalk knows that they have to think outside of the box and try different ideas. Although not all ideas are good fits, they are used as learning experiences.
"There were musical acts I thought would go over, but they didn't," Hall told The Log. "People want something they are familiar with, something they can sing along with and dance to. They want their kids to be involved."
For Bos, it's better to try something and fail, then not try at all.
"I like to think that I set the drumbeat in the company that everyone can take a chance, and as long as they are trying it's OK if we mess up," he said. "I'm far more upset with people who are standing there waiting to do something. I say do it and then learn from your mistakes."
A continual evolution
As the harbor continues to evolve, so does HarborWalk Village.
After suffering early setbacks where culinary icons like Pat O’Brien’s, Magnolia Grill, Commander’s Palace, and The Shed fell like dominoes over the span of a few years, HarborWalk is seeing something of a restaurant revival.
The famed bar Coyote Ugly opened its doors earlier this year, and construction is currently under way on Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, which will be located in the old Lucky Snapper building overlooking the harbor. Bos said the North Carolina-based retailer The Fudgery would also be opening a new location at HarborWalk.
"These are national tenants, and a big, big deal for the harbor," he said.
Although he was tightlipped on the occupants, Bos did say that new restaurants are coming to the harbor. One of which would be located near the free fall ride and western zip tower.
"The free fall is actually going to be inside the restaurant," he said. "It's going to be really cool."
In addition to the already existing restaurants, Hall said diners have two new options in Tucker Duke's hamburgers and Sweet Treats Japanese Crepes, which are operating out of food trucks along the harbor.
So whether it's a new food option, retailer or entertainment option, Hall said the key is for HarborWalk to continually offer family-friendly fun.
"It's about memories and it's about families," she told The Log. "It's stopping on the docks to enjoy a lemonade, parents watching their kids dance on the stage, watching a pirate show, or seeing that one moment in time where that memory is created with their child."
From HarborWalk to the Harbor District
While HarborWalk continues to grow, Bos said there is going to be a ripple effect that reverberates throughout the entire harbor district, and the city.
"I think the area is going through a maturing process and we are going to move into a retirement phase, which will bring some challenges along with it," he said. "This is a place for fun and families, but there are still some quiet coves where people who don't like the noise can go."
And as the "boardwalk continues to morph," Bos said a revitalization is going to take place along the harbor.
"As the boardwalk is exploding and growing, this will help cement business and create jobs, as well as a need for housing in the harbor district," he said. "We're eventually going to have to take all of the areas that need work and turn them into apartments where people can work along the harbor and ride their bikes."
"What I do is think about what the next 20 years or 30 years are going to be like," Bos said.