Promoting ‘Camelot’The Beaches of South Walton Tourist Development Council Celebrates 20 Years
By Lori Hutzler Eckert
Kriss Titus, executive director of the Beaches of South Walton Tourist Development Council, describes South Walton County as Camelot.
“Camelot was this mystical place because no one really knew where it was, but they knew they wanted to be there,” she said.
And for that very reason, 20 years ago, several local business leaders came together to form the Beaches of South Walton Tourist Development Council.
The group, which formed through the Walton County Chamber of Commerce, had a clear vision of the positive effect tourism could have on the area and was progressive enough to realize that a strategic and proactive agency dedicated to steering the effort was greatly needed.
“We had just gone through a rough time in Walton County in the early ’80s, sort of like a recession” said Van Ness Butler, a local real-estate agent who was a member of the council’s founding committee. “We felt that if we formed a TDC and got the law passed, we could generate some revenue.”
The group’s focus was to promote tourism on a more regional scale year-round. At that time, most visitors came during the summer from southern Alabama. But a referendum was required, and Walton County voters were skeptical of the need for the organization, as well as how it would be funded.
The committee presented its concept to the public through a grass-roots campaign, clarifying that the geographic focus of the tourism council would be south of Choctawhatchee Bay and that funding would be derived via a 2-percent bed tax. The tax strategy essentially would allow tourists to pay for the council’s efforts with no county ad valorem tax.
“If it said ‘tax’ on it, we didn’t think they would vote on it,” Butler, 76, said with a laugh. “We finally decided we had to offer something for the local people, so we agreed to (appropriate) half the money for beach improvements, including beach accesses, and half the money for marketing.”
Butler, who noted with pride that the referendum “passed on the first round,” became the organization’s first executive director and chairman.
Undoubtedly key to the Beaches of South Walton Tourist Development Council’s early success, a nine-member board, formed from the original committee, immediately took action and established recreational and marketing plans. Board members prioritized the installation of beach accesses and focused on negotiating for land to be protected and developed as public parks. They then encouraged news media tours, thereby obtaining nationwide coverage that Butler credited with generating millions of dollars of revenue at very little cost to the council and no cost to Walton County residents.
With its two initial goals under way during the first year, Malcolm Patterson, a local businessman, was hired as the council’s second executive director.
“We on the board knew Malcolm, and we knew he had the same interests,” Butler said. “He did an excellent job of implementing the plans we had developed.”
In the early 1990s, a lease for $1 a year was negotiated with the Florida Division of Forestry for a parcel of land on U.S. Highway 98. In 1994, a new office and visitors center opened on the site, which today still houses the Beaches of South Florida Tourist Development Council.
In 1998, Patterson retired after 11 years of promoting the Beaches of South Walton while also carefully guiding and growing the tourist council. Current executive director Titus, at that time a tourism and entertainment marketing executive from the Orlando area, was hired as Patterson’s successor.
Today, the Beaches of South Walton Tourist Development Council helps bring approximately 2.5 million visitors annually to southern Walton County, maintains the area’s 26 miles of pristine beaches and 60 beach and bay accesses, and strengthens the Beaches of South Walton’s brand through funds from more than 900 bed-tax collectors.
Titus remains focused on promoting what she calls “the most beautiful beaches in the world.” Through her efforts, she continues the legacy begun two decades ago by a small committee with some very large goals.
“They had a phenomenal vision, and they knew that the beach was a good investment for the county,” Titus said.
“They were so wise in being able to understand that and make it happen.”