Gigi the loggerhead granted lease extension

District 4 Commissioner Rob Williamson and Gigi the blind loggerhead sea turtle finally met, and he saw things her way.

After his first visit to the Navarre Beach Turtle Conservation Center since its August opening – and a review of the nonprofit’s barebones finances – Williamson agreed this week that Gigi’s aquarium and accompanying environmental education displays deserve a long-term home at their current location.

“I’m excited to see what the future holds,” said Williamson, who forecast success in the volunteer effort that has received about $165,000 in start-up funding from the county.

In response to Williamson’s query earlier this month, the center’s board president, Yvonne Harper, submitted the organization’s tax returns for the past two years and its plans for eventual expansion.

The proposed enhancements include a second pool. Gigi is the only resident of the center’s 15,000-gallon aquarium. But Harper envisions at least two more sea turtles, an outdoor classroom and an expanded walk-up entrance to be added during the next three to 10 years.

Six years and counting

Williamson previously objected to the center’s request for a 10-year lease. The two sides compromised Monday on an extension ending in 2022, which they agreed should be adequate to allow the center to pursue more grant funding and more firmly establish its popularity.

Harper said the center is off to a good start – drawing 3,255 visitors, many of them school children, between Sept. 9 and Oct. 8.

Still, at Williamson’s insistence, the lease extension includes a clause stating that it can be terminated if the county finds a “higher and best use” for the property. That’s quite possible given Williamson’s pro-development strategy for the area, in which he is on the outlook for ways that the island can produce more county tax revenue.

For now, the center pays $1 a year.

Williamson led the county to stop funding the turtle center during the middle of constructing its pool in 2015. He voiced concerns that he had been denied access to documentation of the center’s spending and that a request by the facility exceeded its allotment by about $1,000. Members of the center denied the claim, and county staff explained the remaining money was meant to come out of a secondary pot the county had awarded.
Williamson disagreed and moved to suspend all county funds to the facility, and succeeded until July.
The discrepancy was later traced back to a mistake by county administrators, but the damage was done. Although part of the center’s funds was reinstated, two projects’ budgets were permanently suspended. 

Whatever the center’s future, Gigi will likely need a long-term home somewhere. She is estimated to be about 30 years old and loggerheads often live to more than 50 in the wild.

Other commission action

On Monday the board also voted to hold a public hearing on Dec. 8 to decide on whether to add large-scale retail development to the existing list of business enterprises for which the county would consider offering tax abatement and other economic incentives.

County Administrator Tony Gomillion said the strategy is aimed at reducing the county’s reliance on ad valorem taxes to finance much of its budget.

Such inducements by Santa Rosa County have been rare. According to the finance department, the only cash incentive during recent years was to Avalex Technologies in 2013: a $27,979 rebate of ad valorem taxes when the company added new jobs.

Separately, the board approved having the county engineering department seek competitive bids to replace numerous boards on the handicapped-accessible ramp and deck of the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier.

County Engineer Roger Blaylock recommended the move because the panels have become rotted and more than 300 have already required replacement. Meanwhile, county workers will inspect the safety of the handicap areas at least twice a week.

As seen in the Oct. 27 issue of Navarre Press. Click here to subscribe for as little as $38 per year.


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