Sun, sand, and heritage
Business View Magazine interviews city representatives of Destin, Florida for our focus on Economic Development and Growth in U.S. Cities
There’s a little bit of something for everyone in Destin, Florida. The city of just over 14,000 is known for its sprawling white sand beaches, emerald green waters, and plentiful fishing opportunities. And that’s just the beginning… Destin’s natural landscape offers a wide scope of outdoor pursuits, including golf, tennis and water sports like snorkeling and diving. The city is also home to Henderson Beach State Park, which offers a mile of beachfront fit for camping and other recreational activities.
“We have some of the best seafood restaurants in the world, tourism has expanded our shopping opportunities, and there over a dozen golf courses built within 10 miles of Destin,” says Mayor Gary Jarvis. “Folks come to this area, whether on vacation or to live and whatever piques their interest.”
Destin traces its roots back to the seventh century when Native Americans inhabited the area, but its more recent heritage has truly shaped the city. Connecticut fisherman Leonard Destin began sailing and fishing the waters of the Gulf Coast back in 1835 before permanently settling in the area in the early 1850s. He pioneered the local fishing industry and created the close-knit community that Destin is today. Jarvis recounts, “When the Destin family moved here, it was about trust in fishing and trying to provide for families, and that carried on right through World War I, World War II and onto the present day. Our city boasts some of the best fishing in the world, and is known as the “world’s luckiest fishing village.” Over the years, we went from a sleepy fishing village to now a vacation mecca.”
Destin boasts the largest charter fleet and commercial fishing fleets in North America, bringing in tourists from across the globe. For those who prefer land, the white sand beaches are known as some of the best in the country. “I would challenge anyone to show me a beach that is more beautiful than ours,” says Lance Johnson, Destin City Manager. “I’ve been to a lot of beaches in the United States and I would say that ours is right up there. If you’ve got to live somewhere, you might as well live where you’ve got the most beautiful beach.”
But it’s not just the city’s abundant natural resources that make it a draw for residents and tourists alike. The city has retained its small town charm and sense of community, despite an increase in population since the 1980s. “The sense of community is one of the reasons why I moved here almost 20 years ago,” says Johnson. “It’s unlike most of the other towns I have had the opportunity to live in. The people that live here care about this community and they pitch in to try and help if something goes wrong. And if everything’s going right, we show up and celebrate together. We celebrate the fishing industry. We celebrate the tourism industry. It’s a great place to live and bring up kids.”
Aside from fishing and tourism, Destin has a thriving small business community, which includes many well-loved seafood restaurants and charter fishing companies. As Mayor, promoting small business has been a major focus for Jarvis. He notes, “If you don’t have small business as part of your community, the community will soon dry up and not be vibrant. I have three sons, and when they first graduated from high school and went off to college and graduated back in the early 2000s, most of the kids that grew up here would have to find jobs somewhere else. There wasn’t enough opportunity for them to come and establish their own business here. But that’s changed in the last 18 years because of our entrepreneurial spirit.”
Much of that growth of entrepreneurial spirit in Destin can be credited to technology, a vibrant economy (due in part to being the home of one of the largest air force bases in the country, Eglin Air Force Base), and a new focus on education. Destin High School, which just opened its doors this year, is a tuition-free public charter school available to all residents. The school offers some non-traditional programming that is catered to the activities and interests of the city’s population.
As Jarvis reports, “A retired charter fishing captain has started a professional fisherman’s class. It’s an elective that starts with the nuts and bolts of tying the knot and baiting the hook and goes all the way to setting up business plans for a professional fishing operation.” The school is also in the process of setting up a similar program for the service industry, with a primary focus on culinary education thanks to the area’s wealth of seafood.
Workforce development has been at the top of the list for the city in recent months. They have worked with One Okaloosa, the area’s economic development council, to help ensure they are providing residents with the training they need to stay and work in Destin. “One Okaloosa is really focused on workforce management,” says Jarvis. “There has been a big change in that effort in the last 15 months.”
Those aren’t the only changes being made to improve the community. Destin is currently undertaking various measures to help make life run a little smoother for both residents and tourists. While the city’s population comes in at around 14,000, it can swell up to 100,000 on any given weekend thanks to the influx of tourists. Jarvis admits, “We’ve got a small town with big town problems at times, with public safety and challenges of traffic and moving people from point A to point B.”
One of their biggest projects on the go right now is creating a cross-town connector to help improve mobility from east to west across the city. Another big project is improving beach access. “Back in the 1980s and ‘90s a lot of the beach front was sold and privatized leaving little public access to the beach,” Jarvis explains. “We recognized that it was beginning to hurt the brand here in Destin. So, a year and a half ago we started an initiative to buy back additional beachfront property.”
Destin has been working with the Trust for Public Land, the Tourism Development Council, and Okaloosa County to make the purchases and has so far bought back about 117 feet of beach for public use. They have $22 million set aside to soon purchase additional public beach parcels. “It’s been a big improvement,” says Jarvis. “Our residents are excited about this program that we are doing, and of course our visitors who really need it most are really enjoying it.”
Destin is also in the early stages of a utility undergrounding project for a portion of Highway 98, which runs through the city. While the state is widening the highway to six lanes, the city will move utility lines underground to help beautify the area and protect the lines from storm-caused power outages. Jarvis acknowledges, “It will create not only a scenic corridor so people want to slow down and stop to see what Destin is all about, but more importantly, it is hardening our infrastructure against the storms. The vision of our city is to underground utilities in the entire city. It will probably take 10 to 15 years and a lot of money, but that’s the goal.”
As they move into the future, city administrators are focused on helping achieve the community’s vision for what they want out of Destin. They have a plan in place to seek community input, and give residents the opportunity to share how they want to see the city evolve over the next five to ten years. “What’s great about visioning, is it’s truly a collaborate effort across the city,” says Webb Warren, Deputy City Manager. “It gives us an opportunity for our business community and our residents to work with city staff and our council members to shape the future of Destin. We get to hear what the community needs and we get to work together to accomplish that, so we can continue to have a vibrant entrepreneurial community and a vibrant place for our residents to live work and play.”
And while they work to continuously improve life in Destin, the Mayor’s goal is to do so while maintaining the integrity and heritage that Destin was built on. He declares, “My main vision is maintaining our fishing heritage because I think if we ever lose that, we’re going to lose our identity – in spite of beaches, in spite of shopping, in spite of growth in a great community. The fishing heritage in Destin is what separates us from every other community in the United States, and we need to hold on to that.”
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AT A GLANCE
What: A city of 14,000 known for its fishing industry and white, sandy beaches
Where: Located in the Florida Panhandle on the Gulf of Mexico