DESTIN — What would Destin look like if the Emerald Grande and HarborWalk Village were never developed? What about the Destin Commons? Sandestin?

Those questions are ones Peter Bos, the developer of all three projects, often asks himself. His answer: Less traffic, no jobs, no taxes, no tourists and a lot less for people to do.

 

For Northwest Florida locals, there is nothing more frustrating than trying to travel across Okaloosa Island to Destin and sitting in endless traffic on the Marler Bridge near the Emerald Grande at HarobrWalk Village. Bos built HarborWalk Village in 2010 following his development of Sandestin and the Destin Commons.

Many blamed Bos for steering traffic away from the downtown area of Destin and luring them toward Sandestin by way of the Mid-Bay Bridge, which, Bos admitted, may have been somewhat true although he said it was not his intention.

"Sandestin, at the time it started, was a desolate area," Bos said. "Once (we added) a convention center and multiple golf courses, we had enough critical mass to attract visitors. The Hilton came to the area in 1984. Suddenly, we had a convention hotel, which brought a lot of people. My intention was to not draw people away from Destin, but to introduce Destin to the people who hadn't yet found it."

Bos said Destin residents then started to tell him they were concerned about the harbor becoming a forgotten place. So in the early 2000s Bos took a survey of 1,000 tourists at Destin Commons. More than half of those surveyed (52%) had no idea the harbor existed.

Bos, who had purchased that property in the early '90s, decided to go forward with the master plan he put together in 1992.

"We didn't anticipate when the Mid-Bay Bridge opened that people would be directed away from driving down Pensacola, Gulf Breeze, Navarre and Fort Walton Beach to Destin," Bos said. "People vacationing in Destin could drive easier through the Mid-Bay Bridge than taking the Marler Bridge.

"Everybody's goal in the planning and creating of the harbor district was to generate more tourism and places for locals to go that featured the harbor," he continued. "What makes Destin unique on the whole Gulf Coast is the East Pass and that harbor. It's that attraction that everyone was anxious for people to come see."

Now, with thousands of tourists commonly flooding HarborWalk Village for food and entertainment, many locals again blame Bos for the traffic and overcrowding at the harbor. They also recently were upset when he began charging $10 for parking at the complex, which some believed caused even more traffic woes.

Bos said if people only took time to hear his side, their opinions of him and his projects may change. To tell his side, he sat down with the Northwest Florida Daily News for an interview.

A childhood dream

In order for people to understand his vision for the area, Bos said, they first need to know where it all began.

It was the summer of 1972 when Bos first stepped foot in Destin while scouting potential property for Sandestin.

Since childhood, Bos had dreamed of owning a hotel on the beach after seeing a magazine of attractive woman tanning poolside in Florida.

As a 7-year-old entrepreneur, Bos — now the CEO of Legendary Inc. — started his first business. He hired neighborhood kids and subcontracted out his paper route. A few years later, he managed another crew of kids selling odd items to residents in his hometown. He had thousands of dollars saved before the age of 11.

After attending college at Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, Bos ended up working as a right-hand man for a large U.S. developer. He was charged with finding potential sites for projects, which brought him to the Emerald Coast.

It was on his drive into Destin from the Marler Bridge, however, that Bos stopped off on a section of property at the foot of the bridge, known today as HarborWalk Village. He sat on a bench for more than an hour, looking over the harbor.

It was then, he said, he made a promise to himself to one day own the property, a promise he fulfilled nearly 20 years later.

 

"The area was declared blighted in the early 2000s," Bos said. "Normally, you have to put in tax dollars to build things. This time you had a stupid guy named Peter Bos who put in a quarter-billion dollars into it. He invested a lot of money because he believed in the project. He believed if he could get people there and see what the harbor has, that they would come back."

Bos said he could not develop the Harbor District when he first bought the property in the early '90s because there were not enough people coming to the area at the time to support it. The surrounding areas were also blighted, he said, so it would have taken something big to lure people down to the docks. 

"My advisers said we needed to construct a monumental building to bring people down there," he said. "That's what we did. We went from an end of town that was dead to an end of town that people now say is too much."

Bos said even though he's proud of what he's done, there are some things he wishes he could change.

 

The mid-2000s recession halted further expansion of the harbor district, which included a second Emerald Grand-style building where the current pay-to-park lot is located. The expansion would have included an underground garage that would have increased the parking capacity.

He said he knows the second development would have helped alleviate some of the existing parking issues.

Bos said he also believed other large projects, similar to HarborWalk, would be built by other developers to help spread out traffic and parking. When that didn't happen his development became the main parking area for the district. 

"We were hoping HarborWalk would be a huge success, which it is," Bos said. "HarborWalk is the only place where there are multiple things for people to do in Destin. But we thought we'd have more competition. We would like to have more competition. We want a greater diversity of things in the area."

Bos said when it comes to the build-up of traffic near the bridge and the $10 parking fee at HarborWalk Village, however, he's not to blame. Individuals should instead, he said, point the finger at the city.

"I offered to pay out of my own pocket for a double turn lane on each side of U.S. Highway 98 that would take people who were trying to turn into HarborWalk Village off of the highway," Bos said. "That was in my original plan, but the city told me no. I offered again, and the city told me no again."

According to Bos, it was the city that first began charging for parking, while also putting up no parking signs where people would park alongside the streets. Bos said, in response, employees began flooding his lot with their vehicles. Sales at businesses along the harbor, he said, began to drop.

The $10 was an attempt  to get employees out of his lot, according to Bos.

"The first day we did it, sales went back up 15%," he said. "I didn't want to have to charge for parking. There was no room for our guests. Our customers' faces disappeared."

'Destin had a chance'

If Bos had it his way, the future of Destin would look much different than it does today.

Bos no longer owns Sandestin. He sold the property to foreign buyers in 1991. He said he's only a limited partner in the Destin Commons and has no say over the day-to-day operations. He does, however, own and oversee HarborWalk Village, Regatta Bay and Legendary Marine and Legendary Marina behind the Commons.

He said most of the developers here today are foreign and have no ties to Northwest Florida, which can cause issues if they are unaware about the struggles the area faces with traffic and congestion.

Even though Bos does not have as much of a stake on the land as he once did, that doesn't stop him from coming up with plans to solve the area's problems.

For residents who hope to have traffic alleviated on U.S. Highway 98, Bos insists there is only one solution. 

"What percentage of traffic on 98 do you think has anything to do with Destin?," Bos asked Thursday. "It's like 70 percent of the traffic has nothing to do with Destin. Nothing. They aren't residents. They aren't visitors. They aren't family. They are people going from one side of our town to another.

"The issue is this right here," Bos said, pointing to a map of U.S. Highway 98. "There is only one road. All of the traffic from Panama City going to Pensacola, going to Navarre, going to Fort Walton Beach has to go through this little spot right here. It's 100 miles more to go around Eglin Air Force Base. There's only one salvation."

That salvation, Bos said, is to develop Destin like another Sandestin, Crystal Beach and Regatta Bay.

"We need to create spots where you go park your car and you don't have to get in your car again," he said. "Destin once had a chance to have that, and maybe it still does."