DESTIN — On Tuesday afternoon, a day when the heat index topped 100 degrees, Margaritaville server Paul Henson walked across McGuire’s Irish Pub's parking lot on his way to work at HarborWalk Village.
Henson, who said he’s been a server at HarborWalk for five years, parked more than a quarter of a mile away at the Destin Memorial Cemetery on Stahlman Avenue instead of at HarborWalk to avoid the new $10 parking fee implemented last Friday.
“It’s just ridiculous,” he said. “I used to always park in the Coyote Ugly lot or wherever I could get a spot.”
Now, Henson, like the rest of HarborWalk’s 650 employees, have to park in one of the nearby city parking lots, which charges $1 for the first hour and 50 cents each hour after that, or anywhere they can find a scarce free spot.
HarborWalk Hospitality’s new chief operating officer Paul van Leeuwen said the company will foot the bill for costs employees incur parking in city lots. He added that the company is running a shuttle throughout the harbor district from 7:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. each day to move employees and guests who park elsewhere to HarborWalk Village.
He also said the new $10 fee is part of a strategy to “improve guest experience” by opening up more of HarborWalk’s 1,150 parking spaces to HarborWalk patrons — who also have to pay the $10 fee — instead of employees.
“If you’ve experienced the lot in recent years, there’s been a great deal of circulation in the lot as people were allowed free access, and frustrated guests were unable to find parking spaces,” van Leeuwen told the Daily News on Wednesday. “Now we’ve got a higher level of control in the lot, and with that higher level of control and higher level of proximity, the guest experience has been improved.”
At least one fisherman who operates a charter business on Destin Harbor told the Destin Log he thought his customers wouldn’t mind the $10 parking, because it meant that they would be able to easily find a spot near the harbor.
Ann White, a volunteer with the Destin Fishing Rodeo, was sitting in the rodeo’s office next to the Destin Community Center on Tuesday afternoon watching what she called the “parking chaos” while she did her work. She said she saw people driving around the busy intersection at Stahlman Avenue and U.S. Highway 98 looking for places to park, and saw confused people parking in the Community Center’s parking lot and then walking around to find the signs to tell them how to pay for parking.
Larry Love, a visitor from Nashville, was one of them. He parked his car under a shady spot at the Community Center and walked to the middle to find instructions on how to download the phone application, input his credit card and pay.
“Every other year it’s always been a mess to get in and out of (the HarborWalk lot),” he said. “I’m parking here cause it’s cheaper, plus I know it’s going to be a mess over there.”
White called the changes to HarborWalk’s parking policies “extreme.”
“People keep saying, ‘Well, that’s how they do it in Chicago or New Orleans,’” she said. “But we are not a big city; we’re a sleepy village. At least we were, now we’re wide awake. They’ve gone over and above with this parking situation. Our town is just not equipped for all of this.”
Several businesses on Destin Harbor, including AJ’s Seafood & Oyster Bar, have required people to pay to park in the past. The city of Destin began charging people to park in its city lots more than a year ago, starting with the city’s Marler Street parking lot in May 2017 and followed by its Zerbe Street and Destin Community Center lots last month.
City officials have said it plans to use the revenue generated from the lots to invest in more parking in the future.
Cars were seen Tuesday parked at the foot of the Marler Bridge in front of the Crab Island Cantina building, many of them not in designated parking spots.
Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Michele Nicholson said deputies have not gotten any complaints about people parking unlawfully on the side of U.S. 98, but added that such parking could be subject to ticketing.
“We’ve had complaints about the traffic backup due to the parking policy, but nothing about the parking on the highway,” she said. “However, it is a violation of state law and you definitely can be ticketed for that, so people need to be aware that they’re not supposed to be doing that or they can get a ticket.”
Van Leeuwen cautioned that the policy has only been in place for five days, and executives were still working out the details. He said they had not yet decided if the parking policy will extend beyond the summer season.
“To the level and extent that we don’t have those challenges in the off season, we’re here to learn from the experiences that we’re having and to improve the guest experience,” he said. “Stay tuned for more news to come as we continue to learn and accommodate a great guest experience for those this season, and we’ll adjust appropriately in the off season.”