By Charles Morgan III
These are very strange times, particularly in Destin, where what was once unthinkable now seems commonplace.
As dirt gives way to asphalt, as woods disappear and concrete shopping centers rise, as storm water runs off of our roads and fertilizers seep from our manicured lawns into our estuarine waters, we begin to see new phenomena. The recent flare-ups of red tide provided our tourists with an entirely different view of our white beaches and emerald waters. The Chamber of Commerce won’t be including photographs of the dead porpoises and mullet and trout that lined our beaches and filled our bays in their promotional advertising this year.
This past spring, coyotes began appearing all over Destin. They showed up in people’s backyards and garages, and they even attacked a poodle at a friend of mine’s home. While the habitat for the ever-adapting coyotes (and foxes, raccoons, possums, birds and every other type of wildlife we have left) continues to shrink, lap dogs are not the only species whose quality of life is being affected.
This summer, as developers raced to permit new condominiums on the Destin Harbor (where we once swam and fished and water-skied), many people watched in shock as over 10,000 gallons of raw sewage was pumped into our harbor just a nine-iron from these condominiums under construction. And while a gentle southeast breeze has always been a harbinger of the spring cobia season, now it also brings the foul odor emanating from the sewer treatment plant off of Airport Road. Even coyotes know you don’t do that in your own backyard.
We live in a town that has become incontinent. And while these are indeed strange times, I have spent 20 years in the restaurant business, an undertaking that steels a person to handle unusual situations.
Our town is dreadfully out of balance. Twelve years ago, we had a hospital. Now that our skyline is beginning to resemble Tampa’s, we don’t need one? Our traffic is worse now in January than it used to be in July. And in July, our traffic is untenable.
Most of the developers of our condominiums and shopping centers are not from Destin. The construction workers who build these structures are not local laborers. And the workers in our large resorts are brought in from as far as 100 miles away. Most of the people working in our town can’t afford to live here. Our tourist economy means that our entire city is basically a service industry. And we are running out of service. Things are out of balance, and our quality of life, in many ways, is suffering.
The Destin Harbor, Choctawhatchee Bay and the beaches and waters of the Gulf of Mexico are the most valuable things we will ever own. And as the rightful owners of these public treasures, we must also accept responsibility for their safekeeping.
The Lakota Indians, who were more advanced than us in many ways, believed that we did not inherit this land from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children. Under our stewardship, these lands and waters are suffering greatly.
It is time to restore some balance to our town. We need to take much better care of what lands and waters we have left in this very fragile environment. By doing so, we will protect our already strong tourist business and upgrade the experience of our visitors. If we deliver a first class product throughout our town, the rest will take care of itself.
Some people have said that it is easy to say “no” to all of the development that is taking place in Destin. Well, “no” is certainly not a word our City Council is familiar with.
I will continue to say no to the thoughtless development of more condominiums and hotels and shopping centers, and the ensuing traffic that is an onslaught to our quality of life. But I will say yes to making our visitors feel special, and yes to a new hospital, and yes to more parks and a new library, and yes to our long-awaited swimming pool and more recreation facilities for our children. We need to let one of our best amenities, the Destin Airport, continue to flourish. And a personal project of mine will be to help Okaloosa-Walton Community College develop a marine biology center at the old Mattie Kelly homestead.
These are strange but challenging times in Destin, a town that has given my family a tremendous amount of joy for more than 30 years.
I wrote this 20 years ago. Things don’t change much.