DESTIN — Visitors, HarborWalk employees and locals alike turned into the HarborWalk Village parking lot Friday to find a new tent manned by a parking attendant and a security guard.
Each vehicle had to stop at the tent to pay a $10 flat fee to park. Orange blockades prevented people from entering the lot from any other direction.
When reached for comment Friday evening, the new chief operating officer for HarborWalk Hospitality, Paul van Leeuwen, said the decision to charge for parking was made to reduce frustration and provide an improved guest experience.
"People are spending money at HarborWalk Village," van Leeuwen said. "What we are looking to do is provide our guests with close-in parking and control the lots."
He said the 650 employees who work at HarborWalk are being strongly encouraged to park at one of the nearby city lots, and that HarborWalk will pick up the tab. A free shuttle is provided for those employees as well as visitors.
That frees up prime spaces for guests, he said. He said he expects it to reduce congestion on U.S. Highway 98 by taking employees off that road and reducing the number of drivers circling the parking lot looking for a space and then ending up back on the busy highway.
While some motorists reported increased congestion near HarborWalk, van Leeuwen said his staff closely monitored traffic flow Friday and found it to be "typical." He said the morning's heavy rains did cause some people to hold off coming in the morning, which led to increased traffic as the weather cleared.
When a reporter from the Daily News visited the lot mid-afternoon, traffic was heavy. Some visitors were taken aback by the new fee and made U-turns to leave the lot.
According to Ken Christian, who paid to park to go jet skiing with his family, the attendant said the $10 fee lasts until midnight.
"We've been here a lot. It's kind of annoying, because if you want to walk around or jet ski or rent a pontoon boat, you have to pay," Christian said.
Others took it in stride. A couple who wished to remain anonymous said they visit Destin frequently, and although they've never had to pay to park in the past, they weren't surprised. Their group paid $40 to park four cars.
Restaurant employees like Michael White, who works at Margaritaville, also had to pay the fee. He said he was unaware of the change until he got to work Friday.
"It's terrible. Is it going to be like this every day?" he said. "I just had to pay 10 bucks."
Van Leeuwen said each business at HarborWalk got two spaces in the lot, and employees with disabilities were also allowed to continue parking there. He said employees were notified of the impending charge through several large internal meetings and some subsequent smaller ones.
There are 1,150 spaces between the parking garage and the lot, but about one-third of them are reserved for Emerald Grande owners and their guests.
Van Leeuwen said it's not unusual for destinations like HarborWalk to charge for parking.
And for those who don't want to pay the $10 fee?
"Our guests have a choice if they don't want to park in the Harborwalk Village parking lot," van Leeuwen said. "Then we certainly accommodate them with an exit path to depart so they can navigate other parking lots that may or may not be charging."
Daily News Managing Editor Wendy Victora contributed to this report.