The one percent was no solution.
Having spent months examining ways to improve the conditions and safety on the county’s beaches, the Tourist Development Council advisory board got a look at a pilot program for 2014.
The program will not involve an increase in bed taxes.
That proposal had come primarily out of the Board of County Commissioners which perceived the additional revenue generated as an augment to the Gulf County Sheriff’s Office Budget and in turn an enhanced law enforcement presence in the beaches.
That discussion was driven by several factors, most prominently an increase in petty crime in the tourist corridors and the overall condition of the beaches, particularly as it involved trash and the detritus of a vacation.
The central focus of debate was economic: could the GCSO increase its presence on the budget given current budget constraints and if not where would funds to increase that presence come.
The BOCC proposed a 1 percent increase in bed taxes; the TDC advisory board was sharply split.
“Obviously the one cent was a dividing issue,” said TDC executive director Jennifer Jenkins.
And the revenue from the one cent could only spent for narrow purposes – one of which would be a beach safety program – but Jenkins said as she, county attorney Jeremy Novak and Sheriff Mike Harrison researched the proposal reality became apparent.
“All the research we did we found the one cent was not really a fit for us,” Jenkins said. “But we do have issues on the beach that we have to address.”
Hence what Jenkins is calling the “Beach Ambassador” program which she put to her advisory board to positive feedback last week.
Under the program, Jenkins would hire and train three part-time employees to be a presence on the beaches on St. Joseph Peninsula, Indian Pass and St. Joe Beach.
“They are to see and be seen,” Jenkins said.
Working with other organizations, most especially the South Gulf County Volunteer Fire Department and the GCSO, the employees will part code enforcement officer, Jenkins said, but primarily “brand” ambassadors, enhancing the image of Gulf County as a place to come and enjoy the water and, if desired, the solitude.
“It is really about brand management,” Jenkins said. “It is a way of talking to people. It is Hospitality 101.”
On the code enforcement side, if the “ambassador” sees someone driving on the beach sans permit they can gently tell the driver that they can visit the Welcome Center – which will sell beach driving permits this year – of the Tax Collector’s Office to obtain a permit.
The ambassador can provide directions.
If they see an individual out on the beach with a beer bottle, they can greet the tourist while letting them know plastic would be better and is county law.
Same for pets – an “ambassador” can admire the pet, one-on-one with the owner, while reminding of leash laws.
Lastly, Jenkins said, these “ambassadors” will assist as the county moves toward more of a Leave No Trace model, encouraging folks to pick up and pack up their things for the night after a day in the sun.
This is where code enforcement and hospitality intertwine.
“They can talk to them face to face and just give them the information with a smile,” Jenkins said. “That is how Gulf County is.”
The “ambassadors” will also be county employees who can keep the TDC and BOCC abreast of how the new beach cleaning contractor is performing and can, in short, be extra eyes to nip potential problems before they might escalate.
“Beach safety will really be enhanced,” Jenkins said.
The “ambassadors” can also serve as walking informational kiosks, providing visitors with information about local landmarks and businesses, essential contacts, the environment and species that call this slice home and all things Gulf County sun and water.
The foundation of the program will be folding all ordinances that pertain to the beaches and tourist activities in one ordinance. Beach driving and leash laws are separate, for example.
Should there be campfires on the beach?
The aim is to have one overriding ordinance to provide a mandate for “ambassadors” for the code enforcement side.
There will be new and updated signage, Jenkins told the advisory board, and “put it all together into one comprehensive program.”
That program, she added, would become a partner “tool kit” that will turn into what amounts to a “grass roots branding campaign.”
And the lone investment, she said, would be on equipment and training.