Since Memorial Day weekend, the Gulf County Tourist Development Council has upped its credibility exponentially when it comes to cleaning up the beaches.
With the addition of three beach ambassadors, residents who spread goodwill from the shorelines of St. Joe Beach to Indian Pass, also came the role of the beach maintenance technician.
The role of a technician – until this year inmate crews cleaned the beaches but restrictions on those crews led to issues – is to keep the area parks and beaches clean of refuse and in ensure that public areas are and remain in good shape.
Since July, the four technicians have hauled more than 80,000 pounds of trash to keep Gulf County clean for both its residents and visitors.
When the pilot program began, Napoleon Hill, a lifelong county resident, was the only technician, but as visitors flooded the area to begin summer vacations, Hill found himself quickly overwhelmed.
TDC executive director Jennifer Jenkins sought approval to hire additional employees.
The technicians are now overseen by Mark Cothran in the county’s Public Works department. Cothran restructured the program and hired new technicians Jesse Hyman, Alex Jenkins and Austin Clayton to help stay ahead of the trash.
The team cleans public parks from Overstreet to Indian Pass, cleaning up rubbish; ensuring public restrooms are clean and in working order and looking for or repairing damage to any dune walkovers.
“When it was just me, I’d start in Indian Pass and by the time I got to St. Joe Beach, Indiana Pass was dirty again,” said Hill.
Rather than Hill having to cover all the ground alone, the larger group means a truck can start at each end of the beach and work toward the center.
Currently, the crews find themselves hauling anywhere from 450-900 pounds of trash daily.
On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the trash can be taken to the landfill, but throughout the rest of the week the crew fills up every available dumpster Public Works has available.
Other times it must be taken directly to Panama City for disposal.
Each day the technicians fill out a report to show what areas they cleaned, how much refuse was collected as well as notate any public areas in need of repairs or cleaning.
This data will be analyzed at the end of the season and may be used to help reinforce a request for a Leave No Trace ordinance for Gulf County.
The many complaints of residents in regard to items being left on the beaches are not falling on deaf ears. The technicians share the pain…more so because they’re the ones who clean it up.
“It’s a respect thing,” said Alex Jenkins, a three-year resident. “It’s up to us to preserve and maintain these beaches.”
Jenkins said the main source of trash the team runs across during their workday are the metal frames of abandoned beach tents.
If left on the beach during a storm, they often come loose from the sand and become mangled in the dunes. Technicians must them cut them apart so the pieces will fit into the trucks and trailers used to haul the junk away.
Any large item left on the beach for more than 24 hours is flagged by beach ambassadors while out on patrol and cleaned up by the technicians.
In addition to tent frames, the crew has hauled full-size freezers, blenders, grills, boats, and jet skis from the Gulf’s white sands. They’re also facing an epidemic of holes on the beach, which are dug during the day but not filled back in. These holes, some of which Jenkins said can be up to six-feet deep, pose perils to both beach drivers and sea turtles.
“I don’t understand it,” said Hyman, a 21-year resident. “People spend all this money to travel here. No one wants a trashy beach.”
Much like the beach ambassadors, the technicians also interact with visitors, answering questions or providing copy of the Visitor’s Guides.
Hill said not everyone is a problem and he encounters many visitors who are also doing their part to keep the beaches clean.
“We all have to work together,” said Jenkins. “In the beginning we underestimated the amount of trash and the amount of people who would be on the beaches.”
For Hill, who has been cleaning the beaches the longest, he said he realizes how fortunate he is to have a position where he could contribute to another’s enjoyment of the area.
“I enjoy the people I work with, they’re a great group, and I get to meet a lot of great people while out on the beach,” Hill said.
Additional technicians allowed Cothran to pull inmate crews off necessary beach cleanup duty for more other beautification jobs. He said he didn’t want to use the inmates on the beaches in the first place, but knew it was the only option to stay ahead of the buildup. Jenkins said the inmates weren’t a good brand presence and was happy to find a solution.
“People leave stuff on the beach because they can,” said Cothran. “At the end of the week, hauling all this stuff home is not on their mind.
“It’s sad, but it’s up to us to make sure we educate the visitors and control the situation.”
Despite being knee-deep in trash at times, each technician said they enjoyed their role. Jenkins said it wasn’t by any means “a glory job.”
“It’s a thankless job,” said Cothran. “But we have a really good group.”
All technicians received brand training from Jenkins prior to starting and all live in the area. Crews are currently on patrol 10 hours a day, seven days a week.
Cothran encouraged residents to call him at 227-1401 if they notice problem areas that aren’t being addressed in a timely manner.
“If we don’t know there’s a problem and people are dissatisfied, we can’t help,” said Cothran. “Residents and guests want to have a great experience here, and we want them to.
“The program is much larger than I ever anticipated, but it’s always evolving into something better.”
Jenkins said that while she’ll still have to crunch some numbers at the end of the season, she feels confident the pilot program will be a success and believes it will return again next summer.