The concept was one thing; implementation quite another.
The advisory board of the Gulf County Tourist Development Council approved in concept an additional one penny in bed taxes for the coming fiscal year.
That would bring to five the number of cents collected in bed taxes.
But board members wanted assurance that the additional funds would be devoted toward construction of a new sports complex and not providing additional revenue for the Board of County Commissioners to shift the burden on cleaning and maintaining parks.
Jennifer Jenkins, executive director of the TDC, submitted a proposed budget for the additional penny which reflected her concept of having the penny earmarked for “parks and recreation.”
But board member Ronald Pickett said looking at the proposed budget the TDC appeared to be taking on tasks for maintaining parks that would reside with the BOCC.
The budget, which Jenkins repeatedly said was tentative and guesswork, reflected spending the additional revenue, estimated at roughly $285,000 next year, largely on existing parks as the BOCC and city of Port St. Joe work toward a new sports complex.
“It looks like we are raising additional funds for what we are already doing and for which we have money in the budget,” Pickett said.
While he agreed with the concept of a sports complex, he did not want any new dollars spent on anything but the construction of the complex.
“I’m not for spending an extra penny for any of this,” Pickett said, referring to the proposed draft budget.
The BOCC has approved the additional cent; with the TDC approval the county will now draft and advertise an ordinance, with two public hearings preceding a final vote, to codify the additional penny.
That ordinance would also set the time frame for the collection of the additional penny.
“We need to implement this and move forward on a plan,” said County Commissioner Warren Yeager, who sits on the TDC board. “The BOCC will be involved in bringing this project forward. The new park is the focus.”
The TDC board unanimously approved the “concept.”
The sports complex, a concept originally codified in an interlocal agreement between city and county which has since been amended, would be built on 70-odd acres the St. Joe Company donated to the city.
The BOCC and city originally pledged equal funding of $800,000 each to the complex, but due to shrinking budgets over the past five years neither could afford the sticker price.
The TDC, under state laws establishing the agency, may collect an additional penny for a project aimed at promoting tourism.
“This is one of the few things the TDC can do as a project to put heads in beds and is a benefit to the whole community, the whole county,” said board member Tony Whitfield.
The benefits to such a complex are tangible.
The Bay County TDC estimates youth sports tournaments constitute a $35 million annual economic impact and account for tens of thousands of room nights.
A recent youth league baseball tournament in Chipley, which offers few of the amenities that Gulf County can, brought an economic impact of $300,000 to Washington County – for a one week tournament.
“I think it will really help those shoulder seasons,” Yeager said, who added that some small bonding of the revenue stream from the additional penny was likely the path to go to construct the sports complex.
Mindful of growth
Those comments and vote came after a lengthy discussion about lessons learned this summer.
The consensus among board members is that the summer months have been busier than anticipated and that has drawn both praise for the TDC’s efforts to grow revenue into the county as well as complaints about the volume of visitors and trash being left behind on the beaches.
“In part that means we are doing our job because people are coming here,” said board member Alyson Gerlach. “Look at the progress that we have made. This is a really good problem to have.”
One side effect, at least for this year, has been seven additional seasonal employees added to the TDC staff to address issues on the beach with Jenkins looking at adding even more employees next year.
“I grossly underestimated the need for this,” Jenkins said of a beach maintenance program.
Pickett said it was important for the TDC to establish the standards for beach health.
“The cleaner we keep it the cleaner people will keep it,” he said.
But board member Chris Petrie said comments he had heard this summer indicated a level of discontent TDC staff and board had to be aware of and that the situation was undermining “the brand” and was something “we need to get ahead of.”
Even though sheer bed tax numbers didn’t reflect it – bed taxes were down slightly in June, though there was one less weekend this year than last and last June was a quarterly collection month, which have been eliminated – the volume of visitors told a different story.
“There is a concern about growth and we need to be mindful of it,” Jenkins said. “We need to strive to grow in a sustainable manner. That is our mantra for the next year.
“And it is not just tourism; it is the entire county, the port, economic development. We have to balance our growth.”
Jenkins, with the board’s help, also honed her focus for marketing in the coming year.
More emphasis will be placed on shoulder seasons such as fall and spring, where growth opportunities exist and less on summer where growth has been exponential.
“We have no need to promote summer,” Whitfield said. “Two years ago we were worried about getting people back here. We need to be careful what you wish for.
“We can’t get any more growth in the summer. The growth can come in the spring and fall.”