It took the Tourist Development Council seven hours of debate in October over how to pay for a $7 million renovation of Navarre Park to finally come to a consensus.
In a meeting filled with differing perspectives, by the end of the Oct. 5, 2017, meeting all those sitting on the board agreed on a plan that would extend far beyond Navarre Park
The TDC, including then-Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) appointee Commissioner Rob Williamson, agreed to set aside roughly 20 percent of south Santa Rosa bed tax collections to create an accumulating fund for large scale project investment in the Navarre area. A portion of that would be dedicated to the park plan.
Less than five days later, the motion went up in smoke. For an unknown reason, the TDC’s recommendation never made it to the BOCC. During the BOCC meeting, Williamson said it was removed to avoid confusion over the Navarre Park discussion, but the park portion was left intact.
TDC chairman Kyle Holley said the removal of the motion was confusing and concerning.
“The motion was made, and I remember it passing and I thought ‘well that is a job done,’” he said.
But he said he is not willing to let all that work, and potential work, disappear. Holley said he thinks now would be a good time to revisit the 20 percent funding plan.
Since taking the chairmanship Holley has been leading an effort to refocus the TDC’s efforts on the work of “project teams,” groups looking to create lasting tourism assets in the county.
He said he sees the potential impact that creating a project fund could have.
“How do you keep the volunteers interested, engaged and invested? Show them that money is accruing,” he said.
Holley gave an example of the June Ates Arena area in Milton. For eight years, Holley worked alongside his fellow board members to make the project a reality. He said the state grant funding they were working toward being eligible for was what kept them going.
“We never lost sight of the goal because there was a clear potential source of money that could make our project a reality,” he said.
Now the arena brings in several thousand visitors for events and rodeos throughout the year.
Navarre Beach Marine Sanctuary director Mike Sandler said the Navarre Beach Artificial Reef project was similar. It took three decades for the reef to reach its current size and condition and finding funding sources was a constant challenge for the team.
But once the reefs were in, they began attracting visitors and increasing tax dollars flowing into the area.
“All of that is bringing money into the area by virtue of there are businesses that are making money because we have those reefs out there, and there are also the tourists that go out and see the reef and are more likely to be return tourists,” Sandler said.
He said he could see where a project fund could lead to more improvements to the tourist assets in the county such as another kayak and scuba walkover, expanded reef facilities and other ecotourism amenities.
Holley said there are plenty of projects both in the short term and in the long term that could benefit Navarre’s overall appeal.
“There are some affordable things that could happen very quickly, bathroom facilities to the east of the pier,” Holley said. “Maybe more of the handicap accessibility, sidewalks better connecting in the Marine Park. There are a lot of these kind of things that could happen in short term.”
In the long term, he said the fund would work as an incentive for project teams to keep working on those initial phases as a larger funding opportunity accrued.
“You won’t be able to build a project right away, but over the five-six years with accumulation you could build something,” he said. “Then you are looking at what is the next bit of work.”
Holley pointed to the Gulf Coast Kiln Walk’s continuing effort to build a pottery cultural center as a potential long-term project.
Had the motion been approved by the BOCC, the project fund would have collected nearly $168,600 between January and April. This does not account for rising collections in the latter half of the year.
But even if the motion were revisited, part of the money has already been removed from the equation.
Of that amount $200,000 each year has already been earmarked for funding for a loan for the Navarre Park, the only portion of the TDC motion that did make it to the BOCC for approval. That loan would be paid over a 15-year period.
Without that amount the annual accrual in the project fund would be roughly $260,000 based on 2016-17 fiscal year figures.
It is not a new concept.
Looking at previous years of bed tax investment into asset projects, the north end has far outpaced the Navarre area, largely due to previous earmarking of north end collections.
Milton area projects have secured more than $1.228 million for fixed tourism assets while Navarre has secured less than $408,000 in the same time period.
Holley said he feels that for the project fund idea to be successful, the south end and north end collections should accrue in separate pots.
“Empower both…How could you create hope for both areas in the short term and mitigate any tension? All in one pot it has the potential to spark a lot of competition,” he said.
He said in a way it makes sense to have the consumer make the decision on how much is allocated where.
“It is a natural setup because of the natural behavior of the tourists. Current revenue reflects the behavior of the tourists,” he said.
Holley said if that were followed the limitations to each funding pot would encourage potential project builders to scale their projects to reasonable expectation of use. As for the past motion, Holley said he will be bringing it forward to the TDC again.
As seen in the June 28 issue of Navarre Press. Click here to subscribe for as little as $38 per year!