Coming off a successful winter the Gulf County Tourist Development Council is focused squarely on preparing for the spring and summer months.
Executive director Jennifer Jenkins last week unveiled to her advisory board the broad strokes of a “Beach Ambassador” program to be implemented this year and aiming to provide a more consistent presence on the beaches.
The program will be funded from the one penny the TDC collects in bed taxes for beach nourishment, the so-called fourth cent.
Jenkins proposed, and the advisory council approved sending it to the Board of County Commissioners for final sign-off, spending more than $94,000 to jump start what is a pilot project.
The largest component of that spending will be on vehicles.
The TDC would purchase two four-wheel drive vehicles, one for beach enforcement and the other for the beach ambassadors, as well as an ATV for the beach ambassador program.
Those three vehicles would cost an estimated $68,500, Jenkins said.
The enforcement vehicle would be used solely by Gulf County Sheriff’s Office deputies or members of the South Gulf County Volunteer Fire Department, two agencies collaborating with the TDC on the ambassador program.
That enforcement vehicle would be stored in the beaches area and only used on the beaches.
“This program is designed to provide more visible coverage on the cape and Indian Pass,” Jenkins said. “We are going to coordinate with the Sheriff’s Office and the South Gulf County Fire Department.
“We think we can find the money for this program in the existing budget.”
Jenkins will hire and train two ambassadors who will work 30 hours a week.
The ambassadors will provide information and education to tourists.
The education, in part, will be in the form of warnings to tourists found in violation of local ordinances pertaining to leash laws and beach driving, for example.
“Everything will be logged,” Jenkins said. “They will start their day (at the Welcome Center) and end it (at the Welcome Center). They will be handing out leashes, plastic cups and visitor’s guides to assist people.”
Examining those ambassador logs will provide a foundation for enforcement from the GCSO, which will write tickets to those who have already been warned but remain in violation of county ordinances.
The aim is to provide an additional outreach piece to the enforcement of laws pertaining to animals and beach driving.
Jenkins said the beach ambassadors will be trained to be hospitality agents for the TDC and its partners and encouraged partners to send front-line staff to ambassador training to help ensure a seamless dissemination of information.
“I am really excited about this,” said advisory board member Tony Whitfield.
Board member Geri Anderson agreed, adding that the “biggest problem we have on the beaches” is a consistent presence of county staff and enforcement.
Bed tax numbers explode
Jenkins rolled out the beach ambassador program during a board meeting that included a report on final bed tax numbers for December, the most recent month recorded by the Tax Collector’s Office.
The numbers were striking.
Bed tax revenue grew 48 percent over December of 2013, which came after a month during which November receipts dipped slightly compared to the prior year. October saw revenue increase 39 percent.
Board chair David Warriner noted that November’s numbers retreated slightly from what was a high-growth month the prior November and that December’s increase came on top of an 11 percent increase in December 2012.
“That is pretty impressive,” Warriner said.
In addition, Jenkins said Welcome Center (60 percent) and website (217 percent) traffic were up significantly as the TDC, to date, runs 5.38 percent ahead of revenue from the prior fiscal year.
Jenkins had targeted an aggressive goal of a 20 percent increase this fiscal year after coming up thisclose to a 15 percent increase in the prior year.
“We were very busy in December,” Jenkins said. “There is not a month we are not going to focus on. We are seeing a lot of traffic.”
Jenkins reported that after meeting in New York with cruise line Travel Dynamics International, a company once in discussions with the Port Authority of Port St. Joe, she had secured a commitment for a port of call in Port St. Joe during an April 2015 eco-excursions cruise.
The ships would bring roughly 135 people to the county as part of a cruise that would begin in New Orleans and include stops in Mobile, AL and Pensacola en route to eventual docking in Tampa.
The passengers would have a choice of day-long activities in Port St. Joe; an outing on St. Joseph Bay; a Dead Lakes excursion; or a boat trip to Apalachicola.
Improvements to the so-called “low docks” near Jetty Park would have to be undertaken and wharf rates would have to be determined, Jenkins said.
But the company is committed to stopping in Port St. Joe and there is opportunity to expand the offerings in Gulf County, Jenkins said.