When you buy a house, you negotiate the sales price. When you buy a car, you negotiate the bottom dollar on the car. When you take a new job, you negotiate the salary and terms of your employment. Very few things in life are set in stone – most things are negotiable. Our county seems to have forgotten the art of negotiating. Good dealmaking means the money goes further.
Take for instance, the Sandsculpting Festival. The Tourist Development Board was surprised when the event showed up on the October agenda because the South End Tourism Advisory Board had not vetted it at their meeting two days before. They explicitly said it needed to run through the proper channels. However, at a County Commission meeting a few days later – it showed up on the agenda to be funded with $55,000 with the event to be scheduled during an already busy spring break. When the Sandsculpting event was created four years ago, it was to show potential visitors that our beaches were still beautiful and ready for visitors post oil spill and was paid for with a grant from BP. It was scheduled during the shoulder season to get the businesses through a tough offseason. The event for 2016 was scheduled to happen during the busy weeks of spring break – when condos and hotels are already full. It would be presenting an event to the crowd that is already here. When the South End Tourism Committee met again, many expressed concerns that the Sandsculpting Festival was to be held during Spring Break but it fell on deaf ears. Tourism director Julie Morgan said that the travel writers were already scheduled and it could not be changed. However, when beach renourishment was announced last week, it was cancelled immediately. It was only stopped because of the bad timing of nourishment and not because of the bad timing of an already booked Spring Break or the $55,000 which was allocated. They tried to sneak an additional $15,000 on top of that at the county commission in December for the ad agency to show our tourism director how to run a Sand Sculpting event. That is another story. Thankfully our Commissioner Rob Williamson stopped that gravy train in its tracks.
Then, Tough Mudder came along and we were convinced there was no hope for fiscal responsibility by the county commission and nothing has really happened to change our minds. Tough Mudder is a multimillion dollar for-profit company. They travel around the country organizing the military-style obstacle course mud event – no doubt people love it. They get a lot of participants – enough to make about $1 million or more on last year’s event. A million reasons to entice a company to come to town. But apparently our board of commissioners doesn’t think very highly of our county because they thought they needed to sweeten the pot with another $80,000 and then a grant for $30,000 for Tough Mudder. And let’s not even mention the extra sugar on the deal with a 15 percent commission fee to Tough Mudder for rooms booked in Santa Rosa County for the event. What do we get for our money? The event is held in the north end of the county with no real hope of booking rooms 30 miles away in Navarre. In fact, the largest benefactors will be Escambia and Okaloosa counties because the north end of the county has very few hotel rooms available, certainly not enough to host all of the participants. Lots of other U.S. locales have hosted Tough Mudder without paying a single dollar to the company – they still came and the event was successful. So why do we have to entice and pay them? The commissioners touted a study paid by Santa Rosa County, but prepared with Tough Mudder’s numbers at a University in California that said that Tough Mudder had a 6 million dollar impact. Last week, Tough Mudder representatives admitted that they were sure that most participants did not stay in Santa Rosa County, something the Tourism Advisory Council already knew and said – but were not heard. They were reminded by Commissioner Rob Williamson over and over that they were the “advisory” council, not the decision makers. Commissioner Williamson has told the council twice that we know of that he had tourism experience because he worked at Disney World in Orlando – but the last time he mentioned his Disney experience – he added that he was “in management.” We have since asked for his resume and he has not provided it citing that he isn’t sure he has to give that to us.
The real question here is who is looking out for our best interests? We’ve heard of throwing caution to the wind, but money? We need to remind our commissioners first and foremost our county is beautiful and has a lot to offer, we don’t have to pay people to come here. Secondly, maybe we need to hire a chief negotiator, someone with exemplary negotiating credentials who is charged with getting the best deals and saving the county money. This needs someone who isn’t so far removed from constituents that they can no longer hear them. And, perhaps the county should really take the Tourism Advisory Council’s wise words to heart. After all, they are the real stakeholders with the most to lose or gain. The commissioner’s paychecks stay the same whether a deal falls through or not – and it shows.