Panel creates funding plan for park upgrades

After seven hours of argument and compromise, members of the Tourist Development Council (TDC) were able to reach a funding agreement for millions of dollars in Navarre Park improvements.

The initial phase of funding would cover roughly $3.6 million for playground equipment, a new splash pad, new east-end restrooms, stormwater improvements and removal of the duck pond. It would also include the entire construction of a new Panhandle Butterfly House Learning Center and Vivarium.

Commission Chairman and Navarre representative Rob Williamson initially suggested that reserves could fund part of the project. He also asked that the TDC’s loan on the Visitors Information Center in the park be more than doubled to cover the park renovations.

But at their monthly meeting, TDC members on Oct. 5 reiterated their opposition to increasing the debt. Williamson, who sits on the TDC board, said the park still needed to be funded.

The rest of the TDC said they agreed, but member Kyle Holley had a different plan of how to get there. The council voted to set an initial reserve policy of $1 million in case of emergencies. Then, at Holley’s urging, the TDC also moved to pay off the $650,000 mortgage on the Navarre Visitors Information Center. That freed up roughly $87,000 a year that was then designated for the park improvements.

Holley also suggested that a portion of bed tax collections over time could be specifically designated for projects in the county’s south end, such as the park. Bed tax is a 5 percent levy on the money collected from visitors to the county when they pay for accommodations such as hotel rooms.

The tax is broken up by pennies on each dollar spent. The first two pennies collected on each dollar are designated for advertising and promotion of the area. The other pennies can and have been designated for projects throughout the county that are intended to bring in more visitors.

“Over and above the funding of this project is the need for solid tourism projects in the future,” Holley said of the bed tax revenue. “We stunned everybody because we made recommendations for more money than anybody was asking for. That is not because of (the chairman) or the project. That is because we see coastal development as a much bigger thing.”

TDC board Chairman Liz Horton moved to designate half of the third penny and half of the fourth penny collected in the south end of the county to be designated for the park project. The motion passed.

After further discussion, Williamson said he felt he could sell this plan to his fellow members of the Board of County Commissioners, which has the final approval authority.  The matter is scheduled to be on the board’s Thursday meeting agenda.

During the County Commission’s Monday meeting, Williamson pitched the project again, this time with the TDC’s unanimous backing. But he modified the recommendations to include only the half-penny bed tax allocation, and he included  $500,000 of the tourism council’s reserves not initially allocated by a TDC vote.

Holley attended the BOCC meeting, and he questioned the change to only a half cent.

Williamson said he wanted to keep things focused.

“I want to make sure we get the recommendation of the tourist advisory council correct as well, but the bottom line is I don’t want to get the waters too muddied here on too many side projects,” he said.

The first half-penny would equal about $215,000 yearly, and both half pennies combined would amount to $430,000 a year, according to staff analysis. This would more than cover the payment on a $1.9 million loan to fund the remainder of the park project’s beginning phases.

While all the commissioners said they would support moving the project forward, Commissioners Bob Cole, Sam Parker and Don Salter expressed concerns about the details.

The current funding scheme that commissioners will consider Thursday includes:

  • $600,000 from District 4 Recreation Funds
  • $215,000 reallocated from funding a Navarre Beach Community Center
  • $200,000 District 4 local option sales tax
  • $20,000 local option sales tax earmarked for Americans with Disabilities Act compliance
  • Roughly $230,000 of RESTORE grant money for stormwater abatement
  • $500,000 from TDC reserves
  • $1.9 million loan funded by future tourism bed tax revenue

The commissioners also said they would support putting construction of a new learning center at the Panhandle Butterfly House in the first phase of the project rather than waiting for possible funding down the line.

Butterfly House President Louise Biernesser said the PBH board supports the park plan, although it is still unsure of whether it will take action on an offer to relocate to the new Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge site in Holley.  She said the PBH loves being in the park.

Board members Parker and Cole both said they would recommend the funding for the PBH regardless of where the facility is located, but Williamson said the butterfly house and its 14,000 yearly visitors were not a part of the discussion when the wildlife refuge secured approval for its new location.

A final vote on the funding will be taken Thursday.

As seen in the Oct. 12 issue of Navarre Press. Click here to subscribe for as little as $38 per year.

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