It’s hard to imagine Destin without the HarborWalk Village as it is today. But 10 years ago, HarborWalk was just getting started.
In 2008, Del Sol was the first retail space to open in Legendary Inc.’s $250 million mixed use project that already included the Emerald Grande. It was soon followed by Sawyer Art Gallery, Harry T’s, KittyHawk Kites, Commander’s Palace and other food and retail stores.
Even though this year marks its 10th anniversary, the idea of the HarborWalk Village actually began over 40 years ago in 1972.
When Destin developer and Legendary Inc. CEO Peter Bos first came to Destin, he was scouting potential property for what is now known as Sandestin. What he didn’t expect was to fall in love with the stretch of land on the Destin harbor.
“It actually began with me sitting on a park bench in 1972 for about an hour and a half falling in love with the piece of property,” he said. “I kind of set my sights on it and basically committed to myself to work continuously to try to own the property that is now HarborWalk.”
Bos described a much different Destin harbor then and into the 1980s from what we know it to be now.
“When I got involved with the HarborWalk, there was literally barbed wire between the properties so you couldn’t walk down the full length of the harbor,” he said.
But he had a vision to help create a boardwalk that would run all the way to the bridge, with a shopping center along the way.
“The whole idea was to build a festive marketplace … an area where there’s entertainment, hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, basically a retail zone where there could be music and energy,” Bos said.
With the constant presence of live music and entertainment, Bos said they even had to post signs that said “noisy area” in bold print to let people know that they were in an entertainment zone.
While some people didn’t like the idea, Bos said it was all about bringing people to the harbor.
In the early 2000s, Bos’ company did a survey of 1,000 people that had been vacationing in Destin for at least two years and discovered that 54 percent of them did not know there was a harbor in Destin.
“Once the Mid-Bay Bridge opened, no one was turning right once they got off the bridge,” he said.
Bos believed the harbor needed some kind of landmark that people would be able to see from the road. That’s when the plans for the HarborWalk were changed to include the Emerald Grande.
“The plan went from a shopping center only to plans for a Destin Commons-kind-of two story retail complex, to suddenly adding a significant building at HarborWalk, which was Emerald Grande,” the developer said.
After two years of construction, the Emerald Grande’s twin, 14-story towers were opened in 2007. In 2008, the HarborWalk Village finally became a reality for Bos, with 66,000 square feet of new shops and restaurants joining the already established Destin fishing fleet and other various fishing and sightseeing boats.
“The more you can bring people to Destin and walk up and down that boardwalk, the more it exposes the fishing fleet and fishing charters,” Bos said.
They have experienced some growing pains along the way. After the city of Destin started charging to park in the city parking lots, Bos said the HarborWalk parking lot filled up with people who weren’t there to explore HarborWalk.
“The sales of all our merchants went down dramatically,” Bos said. “Our parking lot was being filled with people that were going to Crab Island with their buddies, or literally people who just walked around and had a cooler in their trunk.”
As a result, the HarborWalk started charging a $10 fee to park in their parking lot. While that decision has faced a lot of public criticism, Bos said the decision was all about providing the best guest experience.
“You can’t have a good guest experience if they’ve gotta park 10 blocks away and walk,” he said. “Every vendor and every store will tell you that in every single store, every kiosk and every restaurant, sales went up the day we started charging for parking and stayed that way through the whole season.”
Bos credits the HarborWalk’s success to its unique experience that you can’t find anywhere else in Destin.
“What the boardwalk does is it connects a whole series of activities and once you get there and park your car, just like at a mall, you don’t have to keep getting back on the highway,” he said.
But it’s not done yet. Looking into the future, there is a second and final phase of the HarborWalk Village development in the works.
The next phase, nicknamed “Baby Grande,” is to include a 90-room hotel, a 51-unit condominium, a “mega pool,” retail and restaurant space and a parking lot on a 9-acre lot at the southeast corner of Harbor Boulevard and Stahlman Avenue, where a parking lot and Coyote Ugly now stand.
A portion of phase II of HarborWalk Village has already been built, which includes Margaritaville and the tall zip line structure, but the rest of the phase is being deferred until “amicably justifiable,” according to Bos.
“The condominium market is still lagging behind the single-family market and we’re not catching up to what’s going on in 30A, which is helping the Destin market, but we really haven’t recovered from the recession yet to justify it,” he said previously. “We’ve been building as the economy goes.”