The Gulf County Tourist Development Council marketing committee met on Monday to discuss strategies for the upcoming fiscal year – but most of all talked trash.
Executive director Jennifer Jenkins said that while she had hired seven seasonal employees at the TDC, three of them were focused on handling the trash building up in public trash cans and on the beaches themselves, the largest problem area being Cape San Blas.
The TDC beach maintenance technician roles were created to empty trash cans at parks, do upkeep work on walkovers and provide maintenance to public restrooms.
According to Jenkins, there isn’t time for anything but trash hauling. She said that currently, three employees are spending 40 hours a week just on refuse disposal and another employee is dedicated 20 hours per week.
The beach maintenance crews are now hauling trailers behind their trucks to allow adequate room for trash transportation.
“I’ve never seen this many people here,” said committee member Tony Whitfield.
Beach maintenance crews are currently hauling 450-900 pounds of trash a day.
Jenkins said the sheer volume is requiring multiple trips to area dumpsters, often leading to the crew having to take the refuse to Public Works once the dumpsters are full.
Though the TDC’s beach ambassadors keep an eye on beach items, flagging anything that has been idle for 24-48 hours, Jenkins said storms will mangle tents and their frames, sending beach items into the dunes.
“Someone left a full-size freezer on the beach,” Jenkins told the committee. “You would not believe the stuff people leave behind.”
Even though Gulf County beaches don’t operate under a Leave No Trace ordinance, it has been discussed by the Board of County Commissioners by TDC advisory council.
Even if passed, it would still need to be enforced.
In her budget for the new fiscal year, Jenkins is recommending a full-time beach ambassador who will be trained in code enforcement.
“We’ve grown, we just need to do so responsibly from here,” said committee member Alyson Gerlach.
Jenkins said that since the Fourth of July she has received calls daily from residents who complain about the trash on the beach, the amount of people and the vehicles on the beach.
“I don’t think we do enough to educate our community partners,” said Whitfield. “We need to build more awareness with the public that this is a tourism-based community. A bigger piece of the marketing statement should be getting the word out.”
Gerlach said that while she understands the frustration with the trash, she remained optimistic, hoping that those visitors enjoyed their visit and would consider coming back.
“This community has to run somehow,” said Gerlach. “Without tourism, the community wouldn’t exist.”
Jenkins said that moving forward; the TDC will operate under the mantra of, “growing Gulf County in a balance and sustainable manner.”
Areas of focus for this year’s marketing plans include further brand promotion, evaluating and adding partner programs, operation of the Welcome Center, administration and operation excellence and beach grooming.
This year’s Winter Fun schedule will be managed directly by the TDC and will include social events to bring together visitors and residents.
The plan will be complete by September and marketing will begin in October.
Jenkins also shared results of a survey that went out to members of the TDC council along with lodging and travel industry partners and TDC staff members. Results showed that partners believed the TDC was on the right track with high marks given to goals, objectives, seasonal marketing, and communication programs.
According to the survey results, the biggest concerns were in the growth of the area outpacing infrastructure, especially areas such as internet and cell phone service, which get easily bogged down with additional users in the area.
According to Jenkins’ data, 63 percent of partners who responded to the survey saw growth in the winter season of December through February. She said that winter guests came mainly from Canada and the Mid-West and was trending toward an age of 50-60 rather than the median age of 70 seen in past years. The numbers showed that these guests were saying longer, one to two months on average.
Another 60 percent say growth in the spring months and 60 percent of partners said they had retooled their own marketing plans based off TDC efforts.
Since launching the new Visit Gulf website in May, Jenkins said nearly 60,000 people have visited.
“We were being tactical last year,” said Jenkins. “Now, we have to be visionary.”