'Traffic, infrastructure, overcrowding': Walton residents surveyed on pros and cons of tourism

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

SANTA ROSA BEACH — There are two possible reasons that nearly 700 Walton County residents chose to respond to a survey on the pleasures — and frustrations — of living in a community that attracts many tourists, according to Bill Geist.

Geist is the head of DMOproz, the Wisconsin-based destination marketing consultant working with the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) to develop a new three-year strategic plan for the TDC, whose responsibilities include marketing the county to potential and returning visitors.

Updating the TDC on Tuesday on progress toward developing the plan — DMOproz developed the 2018 plan under which the TDC now is operating — Geist said this year's response to a resident survey was far ahead of 2018.

Beachgoers enjoy a sunny day at the Miramar Regional Beach Access on Scenic Gulf Drive in Walton County. The Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) is developing a new strategic plan even as the county begins a search for a new TDC executive director.

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Then, about 500 residents responded to the survey. This year, the survey had well more than 600 responses, Geist said.

"In most cases, that would indicate one of two things, or both," he said. "One is that the outreach (regarding development of a new strategic plan) is working; they are more aware and they want to participate in the survey."

But, "The other side of the coin (is that) more responses tend to indicate that there is a little bit more angst, (and) people want to have a voice" Geist added. 

According to Geist, residents participating in the survey see "traffic, infrastructure and roads, tourists, overcrowding and development and parking issues" as detriments to living in a community popular with tourists.

That tracks with what is being seen in the halls of local government, as many residents are pushing back against construction of hotels along and near an already crowded U.S. Highway 98. 

Residents also have been pushing back against the proliferation of out-of-scale residential development, where massive structures that can sleep as many as two dozen people are being operated as short-term vacation rentals in or near what have been single-family subdivisions.

The DMOproz survey also turned up evidence of frustration with another long-simmering issue, as the county government and private beachfront property owners have engaged in a court battle over the county's position that access to beaches should be governed by the "customary use" doctrine. That view is based on a 1974 Florida Supreme Court ruling that beaches across the state have historically been open to the public and should remain so.

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According to Geist, 77% of residents responding to the survey indicated that the county doesn't have adequate access to public beaches. The county moved recently to address that issue by paying $9.5 million for a 3-acre beach parcel at Eastern Lake near Seagrove Beach off County Road 30A.

But while a large number of survey respondents were dissatisfied overall with public access to beaches, "they do think that the access is being provided well by the TDC," he said.

According to Geist, 79% of survey respondents rated the TDC as either "effective" or "very effective" in providing access to beaches that are open to the public. And 76% of resident survey responses rated the TDC "very effective" or "effective" at removing trash from public beaches.

In addition to the survey of residents, the DMOproz planning process included surveys of "stakeholders," including people involved in the local hospitality industry and community leaders.

Stakeholders, from which DMOproz got nearly 70 responses, were asked different questions than residents, including what is needed to make the county more successful as a tourism or events destination. Like residents, stakeholders identified a need for additional publicly accessible beachfront and suggested that more parking is needed for beach access.

The county is taking steps in that regard. Several months ago, $5.5 million in TDC funds were spent on a nearly 5-acre tract on the south side of U.S. 98 between Professional Place and Ellis Road in Miramar Beach. Plans for the tract call for it to become a parking area for the nearby Miramar Regional Beach Access, which is within walking distance on Scenic Gulf Drive.

Other needs identified by stakeholders, Geist told the TDC board Tuesday, are amenities such as a water park, some sort of convention or performance venue, and fishing piers.

The stakeholders had some unpleasant news for business interests and other interested parties north of Choctawhatchee Bay, where a 2% bed tax now is being collected to boost tourism. Among the questions asked of stakeholders south of the bay, Geist said, was what they recommend that visitors and friends do north of the bay.

"Over 50% said, 'We don't take them north, because all they want to do is sit on the beach,' " Geist told the TDC board. 

Another problem noted by stakeholders is continual changing of leadership at the TDC, he added.

In the last seven years, the TDC has seen its leadership change three times. In 2015, then-TDC Executive Director Jim Bagby resigned after just two years in the job. Jay Tusa, who assumed the post in 2016, was fired last year by the county commissioners and replaced with dual leadership from TDC Director of Beach Operations Brian Kellenberger and Director of Administration Jason Cutshaw.

Cutshaw resigned in February for another job opportunity elsewhere, and Kellenberger was appointed interim executive director of the TDC. The county is developing a search for candidates for the top TDC post.

As far as the new strategic plan, DMOproz will gather more information from public workshops, and also has offered to meet individually with TDC board members. Current plans call for a final plan to be ready for review by the TDC board and the County Commission sometime in June, Geist said Tuesday.