The Navarre Beach Area Chamber of Commerce will remain at the Navarre Beach Visitor Information Center for the time being.
At its July 24 meeting, the Board of County Commissioners shied away from issuing an immediate 90-day notice to the chamber that would end its 24-year stay in Navarre Park. The chamber began leasing space within the current building in 2008.
Instead, the commissioners directed staff to find solutions to alleged friction between the chamber and Tourism Development Office (TDO) staff, find space for new TDO employees and to eventually set a date for termination of the lease.
While county staffers indicated that conversations about the lease termination had been going on for some time, chamber Chairman Mike Sandler said he had not received any formal notice of termination and was unaware of any imminent action until he saw it on the County Commission meeting agenda.
“Our main concern is that we were officially notified when we looked at the agenda,” he told the Navarre Press. “It seems kind of strange after having a relationship with the county for this long.”
During public comments, Sandler pointed out that the chamber had resided in the visitor center for years and had served as the Tourism Development Office until 2007. Sandler said there have been years of cooperation between the chamber and Santa Rosa County. From 1986 to 1993, the chamber also performed the maintenance of Navarre Park, Sandler said.
“The previous chamber building in Navarre Park was owned by the chamber,” he said. “Hurricane Ivan caused significant damage. The chamber filed an insurance claim and took out a loan to replace the building. But during the process, the chamber agreed to withdraw our claim and canceled the loan so the county could receive a (Federal Emergency Management Agency) grant for a new visitor center.”
The chamber gave up roughly $225,000, he said.
Sandler said the chamber was responsible for the purchase of new furniture for the visitor center and contributed toward capital expansion and improvements of the building.
Currently the county leases the chamber approximately 400 feet of office space at the Visitor Information Center for $1,272 in rent and utilities a month.
The Board of County Commissioners agenda cites the potential addition of two staff positions, one part-time and one full-time, to the Tourism Development Office and the consolidation of storage space as reasons to recommend the termination of the chamber’s lease.
Several members of the public defended the chamber’s current lease and location.
Jack Sanborn, senior member of the Tourism Development Council (TDC), said this issue should have come before the advisory board.
“This issue has not been brought before the TDC for a vote. Even though the TDC is advisory only, it is a state-mandated board,” he said. “I ask first and foremost that you send this matter back to the TDC and let them discuss it.”
He went on to say that new welcome signs and the hiring of new TDO staff were not formally reviewed by the advisory council. He said oversight from the board is crucial to “keeping the county commission clean.”
He specifically alluded to a 2012 incident in Okaloosa County in which roughly $1.7 million in bed tax dollars and public property were misappropriated by the person who was the tourism development director at that time.
Sanborn also pointed out that the county is offering financial assistance to the Santa Rosa County Chamber of Commerce of $120,000 for construction of their new facility.
“It looks strange to kick out the south-end chamber when we are helping out the north-end chamber,” he said.
Both Sanborn and Navarre resident Tamara Fountain said they would like to see a TDO employee stationed in the north end, possibly at the Santa Rosa County Chamber of Commerce’s new building.
“It is important that we are there in the north side,” Fountain said.
Mark Miller, president of the Navarre Beach Area Board of Realtors, said the chamber should remain in its current location.
“If you are asking what is best for Navarre, I think it is best that the chamber remain in that building,” he said. “They have coexisted with the TDC for years, and I think there is a way they can share that space.”
Commissioner Sam Parker said he would not support terminating the lease, but both Commissioner Don Salter and Commissioner Lane Lynchard said growth in tourism would be reason enough to terminate the chamber’s lease.
Commission Chairman Rob Williamson said he could not support the 90-day notice to vacate.
“If this is about space I will clear out my office this afternoon,” Williamson said in reference to his office in the building.
But he went on to say that workplace environment is an issue, echoing comments made by County Administrator Tony Gomillion. The nature of those workplace issues was not disclosed.
In the end, at Williamson’s direction, staff members were instructed to work with the chamber and set a mutually agreed-upon date for termination of the lease in the future.
After 24 years at its present location in Navarre Park, the Navarre Beach Area Chamber of Commerce will be given 90 days to vacate the Navarre Beach Visitor Information Center if the Board of County Commissioners approves the action. The commissioners will discuss the agenda item at their July 24 meeting.
“Our main concern is that we were officially notified when we looked at the agenda,” Chamber Chairman Mike Sandler told this paper. “It seems kind of strange after having a relationship with the county for this long.”
However, in a video posted to Facebook July 21, District 4 commissioner Rob Williamson said: “This is something that the Navarre Chamber has known is coming for quite some time. This is something that staff has been in constant communication for the better part of a year. This is not something that came up quickly – this request that we would need to have that entire building for tourism operations.”
The county leases the Chamber approximately 400 feet of office space at the Visitor Information Center, according to county documents. The Board of County Commissioners agenda cites the potential addition of two staff positions to the Tourism Development Office and the consolidation of storage space as reasons to recommend the termination of the Chamber’s lease.
The Chamber has been located in Navarre Park since 1993. According to Sandler, the Chamber had planned to reconstruct its own building after it was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. However, when a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant became available for construction of the Visitor Information Center, the Chamber withdrew its insurance claim and canceled its loan for the new building, Sandler said.
Sandler also said the Chamber was responsible for the purchase of new furniture for the visitors center and contributed toward capital expansion and improvements of the building.
The Chamber has rented offices in the Visitor Information Center as part of a recurring lease since the building opened to the public in 2008. The current two-year lease began in 2016 and expires March 2018.
More information will be available in the July 27 issue of Navarre Press. Subscribe online at navarrepress.com for as little as $38 per year.