HarborWalk says they're not to blame for the traffic back-ups on 98.
On June 15, the HarborWalk Village at the Emerald Grande started charging a $10 fee to visitors who wanted to park in their parking lot. Since then, a lot of people have blamed that decision for traffic jams and longer travel times on U.S. Highway 98.
But the HarborWalk’s Chief Operating Officer Paul van Leeuwen said those assumptions are not true.
"I don't wanna indicate that that traffic doesn't back up, what I am told is that it doesn't back up any worse than historically it has as the flows of people have increased into our lots over the years in recent years," he said. “We're mindful of it, we've had the Sheriff's (Office) come visit, we've had the Highway Patrol come visit … we've taken a look at all of our gate operations.”
City Councilman Cyron Marler said Destin is no longer a sleepy fishing village and is now a resort destination and, as a result, there will be more traffic.
"People come to Destin for three things: the fishing, the beaches and Crab Island," Marler said. "Traffic is going to get a little harder on us. Short of the DOT putting elevated highways or we come up with a way to bypass traffic through Destin, there's nothing we can do for the parking or traffic situations."
Marler sympathizes with the people who don’t want to pay for parking, but said it’s just one of those things people are going to have to get used to.
"You'll pay almost $10-$15 for a mixed drink yet you complain about $10 or $20 to park," Marler said.
Some Facebook users echo his statement, like Emily Cox who said on a Log's Facebook post, “If you are gonna pay $10 for an Uber/Lyft, why not just pay to know you have a spot?”
When asked if the HarborWalk will continue to charge for parking, van Leeuwen said they will be evaluating the parking conditions, but expects it will change and will announce to the HarborWalk tenants what their parking plan is for the off-season within the next week.
Van Leeuwen said one of the main reasons they started the parking fees was to ensure parking was available for visitors and guests of the Emerald Grande and HarborWalk Village.
“We had both employees of Emerald Grande and employees of our tenants in HarborWalk Village and non-guests to the village parking in the lot,” said van Leeuwen. “(There was) a significant amount of circulating guests throughout the parking lot when the parking lot was full, causing gridlock.”
To help solve those problems, HarborWalk implemented the parking fee, installed traffic cones and barriers, moved their gatehouse further into the lot and increased staffing in the lot to help traffic flow as smoothly as possible.
Working with the city, van Leeuwen said they have provided 500 off-site parking spaces for their employees in the Marler and Zerbe city parking lots as well as a shuttle to and from the lots to the HarborWalk.
The success of the shuttle has been one of the most surprising things to van Leeuwen. Anyone who wants a ride is able to use the shuttle free-of-charge and, according to van Leeuwen, over 4,000 people in that past 45 days have taken advantage of the service.
So where is the money generated from the parking fees going? van Leeuwen said it’s paying for parking lot improvements and for the employee parking and shuttle.
“That's where we have invested the funds from the parking operation and will continue to invest with making further modifications,” said van Leeuwen. "We're not having a parking charge to ... generate revenue. We're having a parking charge to implement a guest experience and a guest visitation solution.”
The public has had mixed reactions to the parking fees since the beginning.
Some negative: "I already pay property taxes and if I visit the harbor, I have to pay a harbor tax," Ashley Gisis wrote on The Log's Facebook page. "So why should I have to pay to park?"
And some positive: "$10 to park at the HarborWalk is more than reasonable and it would be a good thing if more places charged that rather than towing people," wrote Tyler Buchanan on the same Facebook post.