County alerted to ‘extraordinary’ park makeover cost

Lee Majors, television’s “Six Million Dollar Man,” now has something of a financial kinship with Rob Williamson, the Santa Rosa County commissioner with a $6 million plan.

Williamson intends to unveil the seven-figure fiscal details about the proposed overhaul of Navarre Park to his commission colleagues in their Sept. 14 meeting.

The District 4 commissioner and current board chairman disclosed the cost estimate from an engineering consultant in what he described as a “sneak preview” to the volunteer Tourist Development Council last week. Williamson then asked for the TDC’s support in cobbling together funds from several sources—including tourism bed taxes.

While the $6 million spent on the fictional character played by Majors—astronaut Steve Austin—went for bionic parts in a physical revamping that gave him superhuman powers, the goals for the same amount to be asked for Navarre Park are more down to earth—such as additional bathrooms, more parking and new playground equipment that is accessible to children with special needs.

The park plan comes from a $57,000 study by Genesis Engineering LLC, the Tallahassee-based company hired by the county about a year ago to examine ways to improve the facility on Highway 98 near the bridge to Navarre Beach.

Acknowledging that $6 million to remodel and enhance Navarre Park is an “extraordinary” sum, Williamson said he expects pushback on the plan: “The narrative that you’re going to hear is, ‘With all the problems we’ve got with stormwater, why are we spending this much money on playgrounds?’ And that’s a fair concern. I think we’ve got to have our priorities in the right spot for sure, but right now I believe that we can fund this without diverting any funds that we would use for stormwater.”

Previewing his coming pitch to the commission to support supplying some of the $6 million from the roughly $2.4 million in annual tourism bed taxes received by the county, Williamson told the TDC: “I have no sense of how this will be received by the community, by my fellow board members here … (or) by my fellow board members at the commission level.”

Mixed reactions

District 1 Commissioner Sam Parker, who hasn’t seen the Navarre Park plans, said in a texted response to a reporter: “That must be one heck of a project for that kind of estimated expense. I would love to have that much money to renovate Benny Russell Park for the folks in the Pace area.”

But Williamson said that because of the park’s high-profile location it has special status: “There’s no question that (Navarre Park) is a tourism destination—very heavily visited.”

Tamara Fountain, president and CEO of the Navarre Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, responded to a reporter, “I supported the original proposed improvements include improving or replacing playground equipment, repairing The Panhandle Butterfly House, resurfacing and restriping the parking lot, reconfiguring park entrances and resurfacing and restriping the basketball court. The new plan that has been unveiled is something entirely different, and its staggering price tag of $6 million was shared for the first time last week.”

But Fountain, whose chamber leases space in the Navarre Park visitor center building, added, “The park needs some maintenance and upgrades, but these projects can and should be completed for a reasonable cost. It is unfathomable to me to ask to the hard working tax payers of Santa Rosa County to pay for this. The study included wish list items, which is fine during planning phases of projects. However, we need to go back to the original scope of work.”

TDC board member Jack Sanborn, who owns the Adventures Unlimited outdoor recreation facility near Milton, said that $6 million “seems high.” He compared that figure to the roughly $1.2 million cost of renovating the county’s northside Bagdad Mill Site Park earlier this year. That work included a kayak launch, fishing pier and walking trails.

What’s more, Sanborn pointed out, Bagdad Mill Site Park covers 21 acres, compared with five at Navarre Park.

Still, Sanborn said he would reserve judgment until he can consider the plans more closely.

Williamson said that the Navarre Park overhaul plan includes stormwater treatment infrastructure aimed at reducing the pollution of nearby Santa Rosa Sound. Further, the plan contains new safety measures to control traffic entering and leaving the park.

Yet TDC members are initially noncommittal. The panel’s Kyle Holley, who is also the special gifts manager of United Way Santa Rosa, told this newspaper, “I don’t really have a reaction. Seems like the commission as a whole will have to take that up.”

Indeed, the TDC acts only in an advisory role. While it votes on financial matters involving tourism, the county commission makes all financial decisions and sometimes overrules the volunteer group.

Still, Williamson hopes the renovation ideas will spark enthusiasm with parents of young children, among others—citing the plan’s expanded kids’ splash pad. Williamson said the park’s existing water-squirted play area is “about the size of my (pickup) truck.”

As seen in the Sept. 7 issue of Navarre Press. Click here to subscribe for as little as $38 per year.


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