By Charles Morgan III
It’s that time of year again in Destin. The beaches are packed. The checkout lines at grocery stores are long. The charter boats are running multiple trips a day to take advantage of the short red snapper season. Crab Island is not a weekend thing anymore—it’s an everyday gathering of every floating machine ever invented. The west end of the harbor is not so much a festive atmosphere as it is an all-out, full-on carnival.
But unfortunately, that’s not all. This is also the time of year that brings a steady dose of catastrophic death. Pedestrian and bicycle fatalities have become numbingly familiar. The new million-dollar crosswalkie things don’t seem to be much of a solution. Our collective response to these deaths seems to be “Wow, another one?”
Not surprisingly, at the end of their vacation, our visitors would like to return home with the same number of people they brought to Destin.
Destin is fated to have, as our main thoroughfare, a four-lane highway (with curb cuts every 100 feet for fast food and t-shirt outlets) bisecting our town. The great majority of vehicles are passing through on their way to somewhere else. Every year brings more traffic—and requests to add more lanes. That idea is like a fat man continually loosening his belt as he gets fatter. It’s not effective.
Who would have guessed that the two-lanes of Old Highway 98 or the two-lanes of 30A would have been one of the keys to robust growth and that our modern thoroughfare would have been an onerous handicap?
The common theme of every resurgent city in this country—even around the world—is the attempt to make communities pedestrian friendly. Cities are doing everything they can to discourage automobile traffic and encourage cyclists. Unfortunately, even if the desire exists to move Destin in this direction, accomplishing a reasonably walkable community will be difficult. But the stakes of doing nothing are high also.
The Crystal Beach area of Destin is the most livable, mixed-use part of town. There aren’t corporate chain businesses everywhere because there is not enough automobile, drive-by traffic to support them. There aren’t bike lanes—the traffic only moves at 15 to 20 miles per hour—and there’s an oyster shell shoulder by the road. There aren’t expensive crosswalkie lights—just painted crosswalks on the road, but they work. People enjoy biking, walking their dogs, and jogging, all without fear of having their vacation ruined by getting run over.
Twenty miles to the east is another world. Real estate and business values have soared along a stretch of an old two-lane road. People get to 30A by car, but once there, they employ every non-motorized means of transportation you can imagine. There aren’t any jet skis, pontoon boats or parasails. But there are thousands of bikes, paddleboards and kayaks. There are people walking everywhere.
The visitors to 30A aren’t any nicer than the tourists in Destin. It’s likely that they are a bit snobbier. But one thing is certain, they have more money. It’s a sensitive subject. But, unfortunately for almost all business people, if you’re trying to sell something it’s easier to sell to people who have money.
Sophisticated, savvy travelers all have one thing in common. They avoid tourist traps like the plague. Successful communities that depend on tourism know this. They do everything they can to avoid the dreaded tag “tourist trap” because higher income tourists are the goal. It results in prosperous businesses, higher real estate values, more lucrative rental rates, and extra money for infrastructure. It’s a tricky subject, but it’s universal.
The same amenities that attract wealthier tourists attract other people, too. People who want to relocate their families, their businesses and their money are drawn to certain things. Nice places to live are almost always nice places to visit.
Destin’s future depends on these things. In addition to providing a town that provides a relatively safe atmosphere for walking and cycling, we need more. More trees. We need underground utilities (cars wrecking into power poles cause outages at our restaurants several times a year). Faster Internet service.
We don’t need good schools—we need ridiculously excellent schools. A community swimming pool. We need less of the things that detract from our remarkable beaches, bay and harbor. We need less of the things that make Destin not much different from any exit off of any interstate highway in this country.
It’s going to take hard work. It’s going to require that we look at things differently than we have in the past. We’re going to have to pay attention to what neighboring areas have done to create livable communities.
What we don’t need is a Tourist Development Council dramatically pushing for more advertising. Our tourism was developed (and much better developed) 20 years ago. We needed a Tourist Maintenance Council. Many of our regular visitors from years past aren’t coming to Destin anymore. They’re not tempted by special deals and promotions. They’ve been here. They’re not coming back.
Unfortunately, we can’t advertise our way out of this.