DESTIN – Removing fireworks from the end of HarborWalk Village’s weekly summertime Red, White & Blue Heroes Celebration “is kind of like telling people you can’t have turkey on Thanksgiving,” Bruce Craul said Friday.

“You can’t have one without the other,” said the chief operating officer for HarborWalk Hospitality.

Craul added that to him, the roar of an F-35 aircraft represents the sound of freedom.

“And Francis Scott Key (writer of the “Star-Spangled Banner”) would tell you that ‘bombs bursting in air’ — which emulate fireworks — also is the sound of freedom,” he said.

That said, Craul indicated that HarborWalk Village has no plans to cut its number of fireworks shows.

Craul’s remarks Friday came the day after his 2 1/2–hour meeting with Destin Mayor Scott Fischer about the shows. After citing complaints from numerous residents and sharing their own thoughts, Fischer’s fellow City Council members on Jan. 3 asked him to talk with HarborWalk officials about possibly decreasing their number of shows.

Fischer on Friday initially said he didn’t want to comment on Thursday’s discussion in Craul’s office at the Emerald Grande that also included HarborWalk Village General Manager John Hall.

“To tell you the truth, I want to decline comment until I have a chance to talk with the council” at its Jan. 17 meeting, the mayor said.

After being asked about the length of Thursday’s meeting, Fischer said, “We had a nice, long, cordial conversation. I didn’t have any authority to negotiate an agreement or anything. This was mostly a session of making it clear on how each side stood on the issue. There wasn’t much progress.”

Craul shared his summary of his and Hall’s talk with the mayor.

“I suspect Fischer will say we’re standing our ground and that we want to maintain our fireworks shows, which last 5-6 minutes (on Thursdays) for 10 weeks in the summer,” said Craul, who plans to attend the Jan. 17 council meeting.

The HarborWalk-sponsored fireworks shows include a few that coincide with the annual Destin Fishing Rodeo. The fireworks are permitted by the Coast Guard and shot off from a barge by the west end of Destin Harbor.

Protecting residents' rights

Fischer, a self-described Libertarian, said, “The people who live along that waterway have to listen to the booms every night, and there is the floating fireworks debris (that reportedly lands on some boats), and the traffic backups. There is a whole myriad of problems associated with this.

"We’re obligated to deal with it as a city. Residents can’t sleep and they can’t drive on Thursday night (in the summer). They have the right not to have their lives disrupted. To me, one person whose rights are violated is as important as the 200 people who want to watch fireworks.”

But “counting heads” is not vital in this matter, Fischer added.

“What’s important is who’s complaining,” he said. “One lady told me she has to drive her dogs out of town every Thursday night because they go nuts when the fireworks go off. Other people are worried about the loss of birds on Norriego Point because of the booms. It’s just a long laundry list of complaints that the city deals with, and most of them are legitimate.”

Fischer said other residents have said the heavy traffic Thursday nights in the summer prevents them from going to a nice restaurant.

“To many people, the weekly fireworks lower their quality of life,” he said.

Fischer is a resident of Holiday Isle near the east end of Destin Harbor and is vice president of the Holiday Isle Improvement Association. He said while some property owners there have Coast Guard-issued permits to shoot fireworks from a barge, their displays “are not on the scale of (those put on by) Emerald Grande.”

Overall, there are “20 different sides” to the matter of HarborWalk’s fireworks, the mayor said.

“Everyone’s argument and complaint is valid, but we’ll have to reach consensus,” he said. “Finding a solution is probably beyond my power. You can’t make everybody happy.”

Other considerations

Craul said he thinks “only a very few people of a vocal minority” have complained about the fireworks.

“Our shows are 5-6-minutes long, 10 times a year,” he said. “Focusing on that alone is silly.”

The Red, White & Blue Heroes Celebration has honored more than 70 local heroes, including military veterans who lost limbs while serving overseas, he said.

“Their families come from all around the United States,” Craul said. “And all of these other people (at the shows) get exposed to our military and can respect and honor them. Removing fireworks from that is insane.”

He said numerous supporters of the fireworks include the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, the board of which he chaired in 2012. The association has more than 10,000 members.

In an emailed letter sent to Fischer, Ray Green, the association's director of special projects, said the board of directors for the group's Northwest Florida chapter voted unanimously Thursday to support the continuation of the fireworks shows. Craul is  president of the Northwest Florida chapter.

"The FRLA Board fiercely opposes reducing the frequency of the (weekly summertime) celebration and fireworks display for any political or other reasons," Green wrote.

The fireworks attract thousands of visitors to Destin, and the resulting, multi-million economic impact helps the 1,000 or so Emerald Grand/HarborWalk employees save money to get through the winter season, Craul said.

“I told the mayor (Thursday) that he represents all the people, not just a vocal minority,” he said. “If he wants more vocal people, we can fill City Hall.”

Craul said Emerald Grande at HarborWalk Village is the largest taxpayer in Okaloosa County.

“When the council 13 years ago approved construction of Emerald Grande, the whole city turned out and the harbor was widened,” he said. “We’ve constructed with the city a festive marketplace and the longest boardwalk in Florida. The people come to see what’s here and then they come back.”

Craul said he has worked in the hospitality industry for about 47 years.

The Emerald Grande “is not going anywhere, so (city officials) need to get used to working with us instead of trying to change the way we do business,” he added. “We’re here together in Destin, for the good of Destin and the homeowners and their real estate values. If they look at us as resource and asset and not a liability, there are things we can accomplish that are way bigger than a 5-6-minute fireworks display for 10 weeks in the summer.”

Craul pointed out that he has lived in Destin since 1979.

“There was a traffic problem even before we (Emerald Grande at HarborWalk Village) were here,” he said. “I think Fischer represents a lot of people who have moved to Florida and want to slam the back door shut. But tourism is here to stay.”

The “back door” comment is “a little bit of a cheap shot,” Fischer said.

He said he has lived in Destin for a little more than four years and that he lived in Fort Walton Beach during the 1970's and Panama City in the ‘80's. He was elected to his two-year mayoral term in March 2016.

“Basically, I ran on a platform that said Destin was outgrowing its infrastructure, and that we have to get a handle on traffic and growth problems,” Fischer said. “I’m not against tourism, but the residents of this community have the right to live in a community that’s livable. I know developers like growth for growth’s sake. They’re making money on growth. But at some point, we have to manage the growth.”