DESTIN — If Mayor Gary Jarvis had his way, the keyword for development in Destin would be "back to the future."

 

A longtime fishing charter operator, Jarvis was elected mayor earlier this year. He makes no secret of his devotion to the city's claim to be the "luckiest fishing village in the world." And he's particularly interested in maintaining the city's harbor, virtually unique among the area's coastal towns, as a "working waterfront."

"Being a legacy fisherman, that heritage is extremely important to me," Jarvis said.

It's true enough that Destin's roots are deep in the fishing industry. When settlement began in the mid-1800s, the community was little more than a group of fish camps. And in the 1930s, when U.S. Highway 98 made the town more accessible, fishing charters quickly became a mainstay of the local economy.

In the ensuing years, though, the city's appeal has expanded to attract vacationers looking for nothing more than a relaxing week at the beach, part-year residents spending their winters here, and an increasing number of full-time residents. In their wake, they've brought a host of challenges to the city, from handling massive amounts of traffic, to charting a sensible course for future development.

It's a dilemma faced by many communities in Florida, according to Ruth Steiner, an urban and regional planning professor at the University of Florida.

“Everybody wants to be popular, but nobody wants to be too popular,” she said.

From the harbor to the highway

So, even as Jarvis worries about Destin losing its harbor-centric heritage, there are signs that tourists — not to mention residents — are focused on more basic issues, particularly getting around town along and near the crowded U.S. Highway 98 corridor. The highway, built in the 1930s as State Road 115, and the bridge spanning the East Pass at the harbor, which opened in 1936, are credited with opening the city to tourism.

And that's part of reason for today's traffic congestion in Destin, according to Steiner. As Destin was making the transition from fishing village to tourist destination, little thought was given to the distant future, she said, and planning was centered on automotive culture.

“Of course, when it was happening, the thought was that everybody would drive,” Steiner said.

Even today, that focus on automotive culture remains, as the city is now in the midst of a Florida Department of Transportation project expanding nearly four miles of Highway 98, from east of the city limits to Airport Road, from four lanes to six lanes. The $33.3 million project began last year and is scheduled for completion in late 2020.

At the same time, the city is looking toward completion of a four-mile connector road a few blocks north of Highway 98. The total cost of the connector road, comprising existing roads and new construction between Danny Wuerffel Way and Stahlman Avenue, is $13.3 million. Funding is coming in a mix of dollars from the city, the state and Okaloosa County.

Jarvis concedes "a definite concern" that jammed-up traffic could dissuade tourists from coming to Destin. The mayor points to the Highway 98 and cross-town connector projects, along with work planned for this fall "that's going to change the lanes and turns and stuff over here by Marler Bridge (near the harbor)," as effective means of addressing those concerns.

Still, he's philosophical about how traffic affects both residents and tourists.

For residents, Jarvis said, coping with traffic, particularly during tourist season, is just "the reality of living somewhere where other people want to be."

The mayor is even willing to make the argument that traffic congestion "is actually a good thing."

"When I get stuck in traffic, rather than complaining about it, it puts a smile on my face," he said, "because I know that my son’s businesses are doing well, and my fishing fleet that I care about so deeply is having success."

And as far as tourists are concerned, Jarvis asserted, "the people coming here are going to enjoy themselves — after they get off 98 — and they’re going to come back.”

Slow start on alternative transportation

But according to Carisse LeJeune, who served as Destin's city manager during a two-year stint that ended in August, the city is also making some progress in alternative transportation projects, designed to get people out of their cars.

LeJeune admitted there's not much evidence of it yet, but Destin is a leader in "multimodal" transportation — a system linking private vehicular traffic with transit options like bus and shuttle service and pedestrian and cycling infrastructure.

Destin was one of the first cities in Florida to be designated a multimodal transportation district, a designation it has held for a number of years, LeJeune said.

However, she added, initial efforts to establish alternative transportation options were hampered by the recession that hit the country in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

"We got a really good head start, but then with the downturn, when development stopped, it became challenging to continue building the multimodal infrastructure,” Lejeune said. “But we’re back on track now. We’re doing a lot of multi-use sidewalks ... that tie in our recreational parks facilities with our entertainment district."

Moving forward, LeJeune said, the city is looking at public-private transit partnerships, and is talking with the local business community "to create shuttle transportation services that will bring people to destination locations."

For the city, LeJeune said, the question is, "How do we get the people who come to Destin in their cars ... out of their cars? Where do we put the cars, and then, how do we effectively and efficiently move the people to where they want to go?"

"There needs to be a much larger holistic transportation plan for the city," LeJeune said.

Public vision, private investment

Of course, outside of governmental efforts, the shaping of a community is reliant on private investment, and there isn't a lot of that in Destin right now, even as existing commercial space is becoming available for new leases.

"There’s been no substantial redevelopment in the city either in the last 10 years or right now," Jarvis said. "There are areas that could be redeveloped, but nobody with a big enough wallet has come in here and tried to do that. We have a 'Town Center' area ... that is set aside for redevelopment, it’s just that nobody’s stepped up to the plate to do that at this time.”

“There’s a little bit (of redevelopment) now along Sibert Avenue and Calhoun Drive where you have mixed use. There’s some properties for sale there," Jarvis said. "There’s a couple of projects in the works that are waiting for a permit. But as far as ... a couple of big companies coming in ... we don’t have any of that going on at this present time."

On a related note, the city council recently heard presentations from firms that responded to the city's request for proposals for parking-garage projects which would include ground-floor commercial space and could include residential space on the top floor.

"The challenge we have is that we don’t have a lot of land to do something like that,” Jarvis said. "There’s some available — the shopping center on 98 at Main Street would be a really nice place to set up that type of thing ... but you’re talking a lot of money.”

The city currently has two areas designated specifically for redevelopment — the Main Street area of Highway 98, and also off of Highway 98 at the harbor. Additionally, the mayor and city council are beginning to work with the West Florida Regional Planning Council to develop a vision for the rest of the city.

"We're starting to have those discussions of 'What do you want to see the city look like in the next 20, 30 to 50 years?'" LeJeune said. "You can’t do one brush for the entire city. You have to look at the community as it is now and try, especially for a city like Destin, to hold on to the authenticity and the history of this place. ... Once you get to that point, that’s when economic development comes into play and you actually go out and try to recruit those businesses that are going to meet that vision."

In the meantime, the city is taking some initial steps toward moving the harbor at least partly back to its "working waterfront" roots. According to LeJeune, the city is looking into state designation as a special district waterway, covering the harbor, the city and its bayous.

"We’ve researched and explored a port of Destin, but we’re not there," Lejeune said.

Planning for the future

Overall, the effort to guide the city's development is contained within its comprehensive plan, a document prepared with citizen input that is updated every seven years. The plan covers development issues ranging from transportation to future land use to housing to coastal management. The city's land development code, the rules under which contractors and others are expected to operate, are regularly tweaked to conform with the comprehensive plan. 

As just a few examples of the latest version of the comprehensive plan, adopted last September, the transportation element mandates that "any new roadway improvement ... shall contribute to automobile congestion relief on Harbor Boulevard/US Highway 98 East/Emerald Coast Parkway and existing north-south corridors by providing alternatives for local traffic."

The future land use element of the plan includes a nod to the importance of tourism to the city, mandating that the city "employ innovative design techniques to preserve public access to scenic vistas along the Gulf of Mexico, Choctawhatchee Bay, the Harbor, or other scenic vistas or corridors."

But even as it recognizes the importance of tourism in Destin, the latest version of the comprehensive plan also addresses the needs and concerns of full-time residents. For example, the housing element calls for preserving housing availability for residents "by managing the location and number of short-term rental housing units."

Short-term rental housing has become a flash point in Destin, as economic pressures resulting from the last decade's economic downturn have prompted owners to move from renting those accommodations to families to renting them to large groups of people — bringing noise and other adverse consequences to the surrounding neighborhoods.

A city task force has been addressing the issue, and Jarvis said that "with accountability and density controls, I think we can go back to the pre-2005 era where the residents and the short-term rentals can live in harmony.”

'A living, breathing entity'

However the city of Destin develops over the coming decades, its shape will be the result of a balancing act.

“You have to take into consideration, number one, the economics, and then you have to take into consideration the people — and you can't forget the environment, especially in a coastal resort community," LeJeune said. "And those three things, they're constantly changing."

Another vital consideration, Jarvis pointed out, is the developers who will be working within the confines of the comprehensive plan as they bring commercial and residential development to the city. Broadly speaking, he said, those people "just want to know where they stand" in terms of the rules under which they'll be working at any given point.

"I think now that the comprehensive plan is done, as the land development code is built, they’re going to learn to live with it," he said. "All of them are developers because they’re usually pretty good at making profit within the confines (of the plan)."

The ongoing balancing act that he and LeJeune addressed is one reason, according to Jarvis, there won't ever be a point at which the future shape of Destin isn't an issue for its government and its residents.

“The city of Destin is a living, breathing entity," he said. "Nothing's ever done. There's always something more to do."