Surprisingly, 8 of the 9 board members were present. Absent was Yonnie Patronis. Board member attendance at the 8 meetings, including the 2 strategic planning sessions, held during the first half of 2008 has been quite poor. 3 members have attendance records of 50% or less and only 3 members have missed no more than one meeting. The worst was at the strategic planning session held two weeks ago when only 2 board members were in attendance. I understand that board members are not compensated, but people should not agree to serve unless their schedule allows regular attendance. Hopefully the City Council and County Commission will consider ability to attend meetings when considering future appointments.
Turtle Protection Ordinance
Based on recent reports in the News Herald, I understood prior to the meeting that a compromise had been reached between Staff, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the local property owners for a new draft ordinance to replace the one approved by the board in December. As expected, the prior draft ordinance was rejected by USF&W and effectively put any future beach nourishment on hold. Both the USF&W and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were in attendance at this meeting to complete the process. Based on the News Herald reports, I expected the new draft ordinance to be approved by the board ending the standoff between PCB and the Federal Government. I sure was wrong.
Mr. Charlie Hilton spoke about his disapproval; however, Ms. Julie Hilton advised the Board that while not 100% happy, her family’s company was willing to support the compromise. The only other beachfront owner participating in the discussion was Julian Bennett who strongly opposed the draft ordinance. Mr. Bennett described the draft ordinance as the most anti-property owner, anti-consumer, and anti-safety ordinance in the state with the possible exception of our neighbor Walton County’s ordinance. Mr. Kennard Watson from Turtlewatch explained that he did not believe the draft ordinance provided enough protection due to a long compliance period and too many exceptions. Mr. Watson also expressed his belief that environmentalists had been largely ignored in the process. Mr. Bob Gilmore, prior beachfront hotel owner and current member of Turtlewatch, explained that his hotel was able to significantly reduce lighting without any effect on public safety. He also stated that reduced lighting had a calming effect at his property since guests did not feel like they had to party all night.
After the public comments, board members Mike Bennett, Marty McDaniel, and Mike Nelson expressed their opinion that they were not ready to vote on the draft ordinance. No board member spoke out in support of approving the draft ordinance or even taking a vote. President Dan Rowe stated that he did not know what more Staff could do concerning the draft ordinance. Responding to a question from Mayor Oberst, President Rowe advised that comments from other beachfront property owners were basically non-existent. Staff Attorney Doug Sale basically concurred with Mr. Rowe but added that he felt they could hire a lighting engineer or maybe visit other communities with ordinances. Mr. Sale asked the board what they wanted him to do but I don’t believe he received any answer from the board.
So where are we now? Only one beachfront property owner seems to be publicly against approval of the draft ordinance. The nourishment project scheduled for this fall, and all future projects, is on hold since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will not allow the project to go forward. Funding for the fall project is also at risk since the USACE Headquarters would like to reallocate the funding to projects in other areas. U.S. Fish and Wildlife has made numerous concessions in the current draft that could be revoked at any time putting the current compromise draft at risk. Environmental groups want to make the draft ordinance more business-unfriendly which would likely affect the compromise. And the TDC board wants to think about it for a while and maybe take a field trip. Maybe it is time to rethink whether “Continue to diligently protect Panama City Beach’s primary tourism resource – the beach” should continue to be included in the TDC/CVB’s Draft Strategic Plan as a key initiative. It doesn’t seem like the board really believes in this initiative.
Grand Lagoon National Tournament
After a scheduled presentation by Mr. Bill Spann, the board voted 7-0 to provide $50,000.00 to the tournament being held this August 20-24th. Chairman Phillips abstained due to his employer’s financial involvement in the tournament. The financial support is being classified as an investment and the CVB may receive reimbursement depending on the financial success of the tournament; however, there is no guarantee that the CVB will receive any portion of the funds back. This $50,000.00 is in addition to the extensive PR support Y Partnership has provided for the event paid for by the CVB. While I am excited about the tournament and believe it will be a great addition to our special event calendar, I have major problems with what the board has just done.
To begin with, there was just supposed to be a presentation. It was not on the agenda as a discussion or action item. Further, the board has disregarded the CVB’s Special Event funding policy that provides that the request should have been considered by Staff and the Marketing Committee prior to a board vote. It is also noteworthy that the board has not provided funding in excess of $25,000.00 for any other event. The only exception would be the $60,000.00 allocated for the Indian Summer Festival which is owned by the CVB and which amount required under a contract signed back in 2006. In addition, it is very uncertain whether any Indian Summer Festival funding will actually be provided this year.
I also have a problem with the request even being made. While serving on the Marketing Committee, Mr. Spann has been very critical of funding requests from other events. During these discussions, he has pointed out how his new Tournament would not be requesting any funding from the CVB. Mr. Spann should have followed through on his prior commitment made to the CVB.
Bed Tax Collection Update
President Rowe reported that April collections were down 15.34% from 2007, but collections are up 4.8% since October 1st. When considering March and April together due to the early Easter holiday, the collections are up 2.2% over 2007.
Janet Ray from Y Partnership reported that the agency was very pleased with the early results from the Summer White Sale promotion. She advised that the sale’s web site was currently receiving 690 unique visitors per day and that the promotion has received significant press coverage. Over 50% of the coupons have been downloaded over 100 times. Based on the fact that the most popular coupons have been for attractions and restaurants, I would assume that the extensive local coverage of the Sale has resulted in many local residents downloading, and hopefully using, these coupons to save some money too.
In addition to unanimously approving various agreements and invoices involving the beach management program, the board voted unanimously to approve $60,000 is expenditures for the design and permitting of a Dune Vegetation and Sand Fencing Project. The project is designed to “aid in the protection of the remaining dunes by trapping wind blown sand and encouraging the natural building of dune areas” along our beach. Funding for the design, planning, and construction will be provided by grants, cost-sharing from the state, and the 3rd cent. Mrs. Lisa Armbruster estimates that construction may begin as soon as nine months from now.