The Stories of 2006

Once Upon A Time…The Stories of 2006

Stories by Amanda Broadfoot


‘Sinfonia’ Born of Conductor Controversy 

NORTHWEST FLORIDA – By the time Bernadette Peters joined the newly formed Sinfonia orchestra on stage at the Emerald Coast Conference Center in September, the details of Demetrius Fuller’s controversial firing from the Northwest Florida Symphony Orchestra had long since faded into insignificance.
Ten months earlier, though, the powers that be at Okaloosa Walton College shocked music lovers across the Emerald Coast by announcing that Fuller’s contract had been terminated.

The 29-year-old conductor had been at the helm of the Northwest Florida Symphony Orchestra for three and a half years, during which time he also had been invited to conduct orchestras in Tokyo, Geneva and Paris.

Amid wild rumors of misappropriation of funds, officials at the college suspended Fuller from his post on Dec. 13, 2005, and referred the matter to the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Department to initiate a criminal investigation – an investigation that ultimately cleared Fuller of any wrongdoing.

The controversy revolved around Fuller’s founding of the Northwest Florida Symphony Association with the support of several of the symphony’s corporate and private donors.

The association is an independent, nonprofit entity; Fuller hoped to move the symphony under the oversight of this body, taking it out from under direct control of the college, where it had had a home for more than 20 years.

Many of the symphony’s musicians followed Fuller to his new organization, which eventually was named Sinfonia. A fully professional orchestra, Sinfonia played its inaugural concert to a full house at the Emerald Coast Conference Center’s Main Hall on Sept. 23.

Lois Van Dam of the Okaloosa Walton College music faculty was named interim conductor of the Northwest Florida Symphony Orchestra, which wraps up its current season on Feb. 23.



Gas Prices Go Up, Go Down

UNITED STATES – As 2006 began, gas prices had been well over $2 per gallon for some time. A slight dip in the first quarter was followed by a sharp spike around Spring Break. By the end of April, the statewide average was around $2.94 per gallon, and locally, we were paying more than $2.80.

Demand didn’t ease as we headed into “road trip” season. Prices hovered above $2.75 throughout the summer before hitting an all-time high by mid-August: nearly $3 per gallon. But that didn’t dissuade tourists. Over the July 4 weekend, local hotels and condos reported a 90- to 100-percent occupancy rate.

Near the close of summer, we began to experience noticeable relief at the pump. Prices fell 10 to 20 cents per week, and by mid-October, a gallon of gas cost a little over $2.

Speculation ran rampant about the timing of the dip, with many conspiracy theorists charging the oil companies with controlling prices to help Republicans win midterm elections. But as demand for oil eased, production increased – and with no significant hurricane damage in the Gulf of Mexico this year, it was only natural to see a decline in prices at the pump.

With the region tightening its collective belt in the wake of storm damage, it was particularly repugnant to hear of price gouging. In the fourth quarter of 2006, the Florida Attorney General’s office reached a settlement with Crestview-based Tate Enterprises in following an investigation into gas gouging in the aftermath of Hurricane Dennis. The company was forced to pay more than $100,000 in civil fines and $40,000 in court costs for pressuring individual station owners to match the prices of Tate stations.

OPEC is scheduled to meet in December to discuss trimming production in an effort to stave off a further decline in oil prices. Analysts expect to see prices at the pump over $2 per gallon throughout 2007.

No Easy Answers to Affordable Housing Crisis

EMERALD COAST – No one was surprised to learn that housing prices along the coast are growing out of reach. Costs rose an average of 30 percent last year, with home prices running from $300,000 to $1 million or more. Both Walton and Okaloosa counties commissioned surveys this year to address the work-force housing crisis.

In April, the Walton County Chamber of Commerce instigated a survey of more than 2,000 people who live and work within county lines. The results, received in June, helped to paint an even more accurate picture of the crisis. Half of the annual income of many of those Walton County workers surveyed is spent on housing. Forty-three percent of the people who responded commute to work daily, and about half commute longer than 20 minutes.

In September, Destin’s Attainable Workforce Housing Committee received the results of a survey of its work force. It showed that approximately 75 percent of Destin employees commute to work from out of town. That means 13,338 people commute to Destin for work. Twenty-eight percent of employers provide commuter support such as travel stipends (50 percent), telecommuting (18 percent), carpool programs (15 percent), passes on the Destin shuttle (5 percent) and shuttle service (3 percent).

While 50 percent of employers believe work-force housing is a serious problem in Destin, 55 percent of them said they were unwilling to support employee housing.

The Walton County Planning Department will use its survey results to attempt a change in the county’s comprehensive plan. Eventually, the county hopes to offer developers incentives, such as speedier permitting, in exchange for developing attainable housing.

New developments in the northern parts of both counties will relieve some of the pressure, but a more local solution to the work-force housing crisis will be pursued in 2007.



Uphill Battle for Beach Restoration 

EMERALD COAST BEACHES – A joint beach restoration project between Destin and Walton County loomed on the horizon at the beginning of 2006. The plan – six years in the making – was to add close to 100 feet in depth to a seven-mile stretch of beach (five miles in Walton, two in Destin) between Henderson Beach State Park and Topsail Hill State Preserve, at a cost of $23 million.

The coastline included in the project was identified as “critically eroded” by the state Department of Environmental Protection. A critically eroded beach is one that cannot repair itself. At the end of the project, the beaches would be able to sustain up to a Category 3 hurricane.

Not all residents were happy with the plan. A community group named Save Our Beaches complained that the project was an attempt to illegally take their land. Because the project was funded with money from bed taxes, any sand added seaward of the mean high water line is considered public property.

Dredging and pumping of sand began at Sandestin on Feb. 22, with about 250 feet of beachfront completed each day.

However, by May, two important roadblocks were faced. First, the District Court of Appeal sided with Save Our Beaches, voiding the permit granted by DEP that allowed Walton County and the city of Destin to proceed with the restoration project. At press time, the case is pending before the Florida Supreme Court.

Next, the fourth death of an endangered sea turtle prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to bring a halt to the restoration project.

While more than half of Walton County’s beaches had been restored, none of Destin’s beaches had received any new sand by that point.

Though the Corps ultimately reversed its decision in August, it was too late to restart the project this fiscal year because the contractor and equipment was long gone.

County and city officials hope to see the project resume in January 2007.

‘Lifesavers’ Sweeten Beaches 

WALTON COUNTY – Contrasted with the summer of 2003, when eight people drowned in rip currents, or last year, when a 14-year-old girl lost her life in a shark attack, 2006 was the picture of tranquility for Walton county beaches. New lifeguards made this the safest season for swimmers in three years.

Beginning in March, the Walton County Tourist Development Council funded a program to put lifeguards at six public beach accesses through the end of September. The program is managed by the South Walton Fire District. Because of the program, dozens of swimmers were rescued this tourist season, and lifeguards prevented swimmers from entering dangerous waters. Josh Jensen and Michael Carlson were named Lifeguards of the Year by the Fire Board.

Officials are considering expanding the program in 2007 to cover more area. Currently, approximately one mile of beach is monitored by lifeguards, and there are more than 26 miles of Walton County coastline. The cost of funding the lifeguards for one season was $428,000.


Mother Nature Proves a Fair Weather Friend 

GULF COAST – As 2006 began, the Emerald Coast still was recovering from the tragic blow dealt to the Gulf Coast in 2005. Evacuees from Louisiana and Mississippi found shelter and a warm welcome in our communities as the recovery effort continued to capture headlines around the country.

Residents and tourists alike were naturally gun-shy as June 1, the first day of hurricane season, approached.

In May, the National Weather Service predicted an active season – 13 to 16 named tropical storms, with eight to 10 becoming hurricanes – but experts expected storms to pose more of a threat to the Atlantic coast than the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite all predictions, Tropical Storm Alberto heralded the start of the hurricane season, entering the Gulf and making landfall 50 miles southeast of Tallahassee on June 13.

However, Alberto turned out to be mild, and the remainder of the summer passed without incident, with Beryl, Chris, Debby and Ernesto steering well clear of us.

In July, tourism-related business saw a 28-percent increase for the month over July 2005. The holiday weekend saw nearly 100-percent occupancy in local hotels and condos. However, fewer people booked rooms months in advance because of the uncertainty over the weather.

By late October, residents of the Emerald Coast were breathing a collective sigh of relief.

While there are no guarantees about the 2007 storm season, we’ll enjoy the fair weather while it lasts.


PGA Hits the Emerald Coast Greens 

SANDESTIN – Golf fans across Northwest Florida cheered at the news that the Boeing Championship had found a new home: the prestigious Raven Golf Club at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort.

Held May 8-14, the PGA Champions Tour event doled out a $1.6-million purse and was televised nationally and internationally that Friday, Saturday and Sunday on the Golf Channel.

Formerly known as the Blue Angels Classic, the tournament had been held for 11 years at The Moors Golf Club in Milton, Fla.

During its 11-year run, the event raised more than $2 million for a variety of charities in Northwest Florida, including Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital, the Ronald McDonald House and Baptist LifeFlight.

The Blue Angels Classic struggled with bad weather and poor attendance, though, making it difficult for the Pensacola area to continue to support the event’s $3-million operating cost.

The Champions Tour is designed specifically for professional golfers ages 50 and older. The tour started in 1980 as the Senior PGA Tour before rebranding in 2002 as the Champions Tour.

Bobby Wadkins picked up his second Champions Tour victory and earned a cool $240,000 at the 2006 event.

Other major players included Tom Watson, winner of last year’s Senior British Open; Allen Doyle, defending U.S. Senior Open Champion; Dana Quigley, last year’s biggest Champions Tour prize winner with a total win of $2.17 million; defending tournament champ Jim Thorpe; and Pensacola-based pro Jerry Pate.

Sponsorship agreements with Sandestin and Boeing ensure that the event will be held annually on Mother’s Day Weekend at Sandestin in 2007 and 2008 as well.



Rare Woodpecker Spied in Walton County 

WALTON COUNTY – The ivory-billed woodpecker, once thought to be extinct, now supposedly is nesting in the cypress swamps of Washington and Walton counties. The rare, crow-sized creature has a characteristic white beak, a red crest and a 30-inch wingspan.

To confirm the 14 reported sightings, a clear photograph must be produced and DNA evidence produced – neither of which has happened yet. However, researchers from Auburn University currently are gathering data.

The research team recorded 99 “double knocks” and 210 “kent calls.” They also found numerous large cavities in trees that are characteristic of the ivory-billed woodpecker, as well as trademark foraging signs.

The rare woodpeckers feed on large grubs that attack dead trees early in the decomposition process, when the bark still is very tight on the trees.

What’s the big deal about one more Panhandle bird, you ask? Well, the last confirmed sighting of this particular species was in 1944. After that, the bird was believed to be extinct until a sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker was reported in eastern Arkansas in 2004.

As a result of that sighting, the city of Brinkley, Ark., reported that tourist spending increased 30 percent the following year as birders descended upon the small town in hopes of spotting the elusive creature for themselves.



Do the Funky Chicken 

DEFUNIAK SPRINGS – Las Vegas it’s not, but Walton County witnessed the raid of an illegal gambling house in March, when a couple devised a creative way to earn a little quick cash using a chicken.

The Juniper Lake Pub Chicken S–t Contest garnered more than $1,000 for Martha and Larry Lightner of DeFuniak Springs before the operation was closed down by the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco.

The Lightners had divided a 4-foot by 8-foot board into 1,100 equal spaces and sold each space for $1. When a patron purchased a space, that person wrote his or her name on it. A well-fed chicken was released on the board at the Juniper Lake Superette and Pub. The space on which the chicken relieved itself was the winner. The owner of that space received $800, while the Lightners netted about $300.

No one was available for comment, because no one could keep a straight face.


Holy Hamburglar!

MIRAMAR BEACH – A serial kidnapper could be behind the crime spree that resulted in two icons going missing this year.

In June, Ronald McDonald was abducted from a bench outside a McDonald’s restaurant in Miramar Beach. Nearly a week later, the life-size statue was dumped in front of a local house, Mardi Gras beads around his neck, duct tape on his mouth and a typed note taped to his chest: “I went out for a vacation. Sorry about the fuss.” McDonald was unharmed but not talking. Law enforcement suspected foul play and speculated that the note could have been written under duress.

In October, just when restaurant mascots began to breathe a little easier, another victim was claimed: the gator who greeted patrons to the Blue Orleans restaurant in Blue Mountain Beach. A transplant from Cape Cod, Mass., where he was discovered by Blue Orleans’ owner – also named “Gator” – the gator stood at the doorway of the restaurant, armed with a tray of menus and a cup of coffee. Nothing was discovered at the scene of the kidnapping but the coffee mug.

No link has been found between the missing gator and the earlier abduction of McDonald, but law enforcement isn’t ruling out the possibility. Investigators are following a lead that the gator could have been the victim of Louisiana State University football fans, as the crime occurred the weekend of the LSU-University of Florida game.

At press time, no ransom demands had been made, and the Blue Orleans owner is offering an “award” for information that leads to the beloved gator’s safe return.