DESTIN — Beads of sweat poured from Chris Barker's forehead in early July as he scrubbed the interior of a car in the seemingly empty parking lot of a large shopping center on Main Street.

Barker, who works for a mobile car detailing shop out of Destin, said he can remember a time when that parking lot was packed with cars going in and out of the bustling storefronts. A Dollar General, Cash's Liquor and Sport's Bar, Old Time Pottery and Patio Depot are there now, scattered between an even higher number of vacant storefronts.

 

"Destin has probably grown 90 percent since I've been living here since 1992," Barker said. "New businesses have come in, but also a lot of businesses have left. Most of the businesses are right on U.S. Highway 98 and the mom-and-pop shops that used to be in old Destin, like at this shopping center here, are gone."

And, if you're asking Barker, he would say that the approximate 11,000 locals who make up Destin deserve to have their small businesses back. Even more so, he said, to have a reason to escape tourism traffic on U.S. Highway 98.

"I think we need to have our locals start up those mom-and-pop shops again and place them in old Destin where people can actually get off of Highway 98 to shop," Barker said. "In the '90s Destin was a small business type of place. Destin residents really need that."

And Barker isn't alone.

Many Destin residents say they are immobilized during summer by tourists flooding U.S. Highway 98. Those same tourists cause long lines at grocery stores and shopping centers. And many of the buildings and businesses that have come to Destin since the early 2000s, including condos, beach supply stores and seafood restaurants, cater to tourists.

Jose Varela, who walked his pup Magnis at the Destin Dog Park on an early August morning, said what locals lack in Destin is variety.

"We need a greater variety of restaurants, like more international foods," said Varela. "Locals would love to have a solid food truck industry, something like in Pensacola or Seaside. If locals want to go to a concert or watch a good sports game, we have to travel for that. It would be great to have a venue for bigger events. But I don't even know if that would be possible"

Doug Rainer, the city's public information manager, said in addition to the empty storefronts Barker mentioned, including the old Cinema 10, there are even more empty commercial spaces for lease on Airport Road.

Mayor Gary Jarvis said its not surprising that there is commercial space available in the city.

 

“I don’t think that’s ever changed,” he said. “That’s just the normal course of turnover, people coming and going."

Many of locals say that although they physically live in Destin, they aren't spending their money there during the summer.

Mike Kleypas, a 10-year resident of the Destin area, said his family only travels on 98 when completely necessary. They often go to Niceville or Fort Walton Beach to eat out or shop because of Destin's price inflation, he said.

Kleypas said although he feels like locals are slowly getting pushed out of Destin, it's a double-edged sword.

"We're dependent here on tourism and the military," he said. "It's what attracts people here. So once you start pulling that away I don't know what would happen to the economy."

Others, however, say they benefit from Destin's seasonal visitors.  

Varela said although locals are sometimes forced to navigate around tourists, the attractions created to appease them can be a big plus for locals, especially parents. Varela, a dad himself, said having places like Big Kahuna's Water and Adventure Park and the Track Destin are great to have, even if it means waiting in long lines.

"I honestly had no problem taking mine out to places like the Track during the summertime," Varela said. "Most people come to the area to have fun, but we actually get to be the ones that live here. I think our tourists here are usually very well behaved. We don't have the issues you hear about in, like, Panama City."

Mayor Jarvis said although tourism does make up a huge part of the Destin economy, how they regulate tourism issues has to be based on the desires of the citizens.

“In the end, though, we answer to the residents, because they’re the ones that vote. They’re the ones that live here. So a little bit of the scale has to be tipped towards them." 

Kleypas said even with the tourism woes, people will always come to call this area home.

"People like it here and they just want to come back," he said, speaking from experience. "People have a good feeling about the area and, when they retire, they move here. We've always been beach people so we decided to move here. We still love the area, aside from it being so crowded."