Tourism leaders spar with Rob Williamson

The discord between District 4 County Commissioner Rob Williamson and some hospitality industry veterans has surfaced for the fourth time since November and made him a sometimes churlish minority of one on the Santa Rosa County Tourism Development Council.

Williamson, appointed to the council last year by his fellow commissioners, has broken with most the panel’s seven volunteer members on the funding of three tourism-related events and on their quest to delay the county’s scheduled Navarre Beach renourishment project until after next summer’s vacation season.

What’s more, Williamson scolded council members last week for speaking to a reporter about their concerns over tourism issues without first voicing them at a public commission meeting: “Instead of bringing them forward in the press, you could bring them forward in a county commission meeting.”

But some members of the TDC say that their votes on recommendations about certain bed-tax spending decisions don’t seem to matter to Williamson or other county commissioners.

Citing one example, Jack Sanborn, a TDC member who is president of Adventures Unlimited, an outdoor recreation company in Milton, pointed to the commissioners’ funding of the Tough Mudder military-style obstacle course event this April. After the TDC recommended limiting the county’s financial support of the for-profit Tough Mudder Inc.’s venture to $20,000, commissioners quadrupled that amount and added $30,000 in state grant money without discussing the tourism panel’s doubts about the event’s economic impact value.

Sanborn acknowledged that he didn’t voice his concern at a county commission meeting: “I didn’t feel like it was worth going to the county commission meeting because we had already made a recommendation. And that’s why I didn’t show up because I didn’t think it would make a difference.”

Trading barbs

But last week it was Williamson’s opinion being rebuffed twice by the TDC.

He objected to a request from the Santa Rosa County Arts and Culture Foundation for a TDC grant of $3,000 to support an art festival in Milton this March. Williamson reasoned that the group had missed the Aug. 31, 2015, deadline for submitting grant requests.

That prompted pushback from Alan Lowery, a TDC member who is also a Milton city councilman: “We just agreed through the county commission to give $110,000 to Tough Mudder for advertising. Now, I understand that’s a much bigger event. But that’s a for-profit company. And now we’re talking about not giving this volunteer group $3,000.”  Doesn’t seem right somehow.”

Two other TDC members immediately spoke up in favor of supporting the local nonprofit arts group and the panel voted 6-1 in favor of the funding. Williamson was the lone dissenter.

Sanborn voiced agreement with Lowery and expressed doubt about the economic value of Tough Mudder: “The biggest problem I had,

Rob, were the figures. Because I always feel that whatever they say about ‘figures lie and liars figure,” and the numbers they (Tough Mudder Inc.) were throwing out there of 14,000 people spending the night in Santa Rosa County were way off.”

Still, Williamson, who led the commission’s support for Tough Mudder, replied, “I stand behind that decision and I look forward to a successful event.”

Differing on dredging

Williamson also split with other TDC members last Thursday on whether to push for a delay in the $15 million Navarre Beach dredging and sand restoration project scheduled to start in March.

The panel voted 6-0, with Williamson abstaining, to submit a letter asking the county commission to reschedule the beach work until after Labor Day to minimize tourists’ exposure to the noise and disruption of heavy equipment operation.

Without promising his support on the commission for a delay, Williamson said, “I would say put the letter forward. I’m not saying don’t put the letter forward. Why not?”

However, Williamson asserted that the contract with Weeks Marine Inc. has already been signed.

But Sanborn said, “When you’re paying somebody you should have the right to say when they start and stop.”

Williamson also expressed concern that a delay could cost the county about $1 million in funding from federal grants that require the renourishment work to be finished this summer.

Besides, Williamson said that while he shared some concern about the dredging’s impact and had previously inquired about the possibility of delaying it, he doubts that much concern is justified: “I don’t look at it as severely as some others.”

TDC members have estimated that the potential economic impact on tourism could reach $10 million in empty hotel rooms and wages lost by workers in tourism-related businesses, far exceeding the value of the federal grants that county officials worry could be lost by a delay.

As seen in the Jan. 14 issue of Navarre Press. Click HERE to subscribe for as little as $38 per year.

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