The sleepy days of one Gulf Coast community could soon be long gone if one local developer and an international hotel chain have their way.
Hard Rock International is currently in talks with Okaloosa County developer Tripp Tolbert to develop Okaloosa Island into a resort district named Destin West.
This week Tolbert, along with representatives from Hard Rock International and Louisiana-based WHLC Architecture, spoke before the Okaloosa County Board of County Commissioners to present their vision for the new district and possible resort development.
“I am promoting the creation of a Destin West Resort District in order to attract more tourism and shoulder season business onto the island,” said Tolbert, founder of the Tolbert Group, the company leading the development. Tolbert also owns the Ramada Plaza Beach Resort on Okaloosa Island and is an investor in other island developments.
Proposed 600-unit hotel and resort
As part of the district, Tolbert announced he’s working alongside Hard Rock to develop a 600-unit hotel and resort on the current site of the Ramada Beach Resort and potentially expanding across Highway 98 to the site of Tolbert’s RV campground along Choctawhatchee Bay.
The size and scale of such a development would be the first of its kind on the island. The hotel would have to conform to the strict height limits on the island of 75 feet.
“We’re definitely behind that project,” said Hard Rock Hotels Vice President Todd Hricko. “We’re a Florida corporation…we have three world-class assets in Hollywood, Tampa, and Orlando, and a resort in Okaloosa Island would be a world-class asset as well.”
When reached for comment, a spokesperson for Hard Rock International declined to answer any specifics but did confirm discussions are ongoing.
“Hard Rock International is in preliminary discussions to develop a Hard Rock Hotel in Okaloosa County,” a spokesperson said. “No further details on the potential project are available at this time.”
“Destin West District”
In addition to the proposed private development, the development team offered insight into reimagining the streetscape of Highway 98 that traverses through the island between Fort Walton Beach and Destin and creating a master plan for the proposed Destin West district.
“We want to take that property and develop it further,” said Rex Cabaniss, a principal with WHC Architecture, referring to the existing Ramada Beach Resort site and surrounding properties. “Everyone knows and loves Okaloosa Island and we want to maintain as much of the natural beauty as we can.”
Cabaniss told commissioners he would like to work with the county to create a master plan for the island.
“We’d like to work with you on properties that are up for development and place them in a resort district we’ve proposed,” Cabaniss said. “We’d also like to add natural beauty to the roadways.”
Cabannis said implementing new amenities, such as running trails, street lighting, and creative landscaping could help make the Highway 98 corridor on the business district of the island more walkable.
Additionally, Tolbert offered his ideas of utilizing publicly owned land for for-profit entities, such as a 4,000 foot “lazy river” pool routing through county property abutting Choctawhatchee Bay and building a private recreational campground near the Veterans Memorial Park.
Developer says Convention Center underutilized
Tolbert expressed his concerns to commissioners that the Emerald Coast Convention Center isn’t reaching its potential.
“We all want it for Okaloosa Island and I think it’s a great asset,” said Tolbert. “But I think it’s totally underutilized. I don’t think us in the private sector have provided the accommodations to go along with the convention center. That is one of the reasons I’m working with Hard Rock. I think with all the hoteliers and everybody working together…hopefully we can turn that venue around.”
While vague in specifics, Tolbert said he’s concerned that the Convention Center’s operating costs are a burden, which he alleges are in excess of $2 million per year, and urged commissioners to seek a private entity to take over the facility.
“I think it’s a great asset, but it’s … totally underutilized,” Tolbert said. “And us in the private industry have not provided the proper accommodations, I think, to go with the convention center.”
Tolbert said the convention center can help maximize the island’s tourism potential if the county allows the resort district to be created.
“With all the hoteliers and everyone working together as a district … hopefully, we could turn that venue around,” he said.
In contrast to Tolbert’s statements, county officials said the facility has an economic impact in excess of $15 million annually. Like other municipally owned conference and convention centers, the facility is subsidized by the taxes collected from the tourism industry.
Specifically, the facility is funded by the Tourist Development Trust Fund as well as by revenues generated by functions held at the convention center.
The facility is classified as an enterprise fund and generates only $800,000 to $900,000 annually. It has operated at a loss since it opened in 2003, but that has been offset by the revenue from the fourth penny of the bed tax. However, under state law the county cannot list the tax revenue as income, Stanford said.
In 2013 county officials announced that the 30-year note on the Convention Center had been paid off after only 13 years, thanks to the venue’s success. By paying off the bond early, the county saved nearly $8 million.