Pier progress praised
By Jamie Gentry
It has been roughly six months since the previous operators of “the longest pier in the Gulf of Mexico” walked out early on their contract with Santa Rosa County, leaving the 2017 bid winner, Growing Santa Rosa Enterprises (GSRE), to jump in early.
In those first few weeks, the operators faced quite a few challenges opening the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier, gift shop and restaurant to visitors. At the start, GSRE was faced with everything from wiring that posed a fire hazard to insufficient kitchen facilities, Ken Fountain said.
“We encountered some unexpected major repairs that needed to be made that only could be seen once the contract had been awarded, so we decided to first address the health and safety of the public,” Fountain said. “We had the electrical work redone on the pier to comply with fire safety standards and replaced all of the kitchen equipment.
“We also had to upgrade internet services to high speed for our Point of Sale system, and we have installed security cameras to include monitoring of the parking lot. We had to replace the handrails on the steps leading up to the restaurant. There was a lot of work to be done.”
Board of County Commissioners Chairman Bob Cole said he could not be happier. He visited the pier with his family four days after subtropical storm Alberto came through the area.
“I could not be any happier… We went out there and had a great time. It was hard to believe it was only four days after there was a storm offshore,” Cole said.
Commissioner Sam Parker, who serves on the Tourist Development Council (TDC), said the pier has been good for the area’s tourism business.
“I have not heard any negative feedback from any of the staff at the beach nor the TDC. In fact, our (Tourist Development Office) Director Julie (Morgan) even said in a meeting they had been working together really well. From all accounts, things are going very well,” he said.
But not everyone is happy with the current operations.
Last week the pier ran out of ice for fishermen, according to a post on Facebook. In regard to the incident, Commissioner Rob Williamson commented via Facebook “as expected, they are a complete disappointment.”
Cole said the ice shortage is the only issue he has heard regarding operations.
“You had several days of record-setting temperatures, running out of ice – you just missed the target there. How can you predetermine those record-setting days? Little things like that are just part of running a business,” Cole said.
Other Facebook commenters accused the pier operators of being out of compliance with their contract. Cole said that is simply not true.
Based on the contract, GSRE collects and pays to the county 101 percent of pier fees and 5 percent of all sales at the restaurant (Windjammers) and pier store an arrangement that GSRE has complied with.
Fountain pointed out that GSRE has exceeded the expectations outlined in the contract. The contract with the county specifically states that GSRE is not responsible for the “costs of the repair or replacement of any structural element for the premises.”
Parker said the operators have invested funds in bringing the pier facilities up to standard.
“Things are working very smoothly. They spent a lot of money to make some much-needed infrastructure upgrades to the property – and huge safety improvements,” Parker said. “Those costs were things that were unexpected, but GSRE put that money in and have never asked for reimbursements from the county.”
Those investments include rewiring the entirety of the pier due to fire hazards, updating plumbing, replacing all kitchen equipment and other changes.
Cole said GSRE has gone above its contract requirements since the beginning.
“Not only that, they also took over the contract early. When the previous operator walked out on us, they stepped up to the plate and took over early,” Cole said. “It was dropped in their lap like it was, and they got to work finding and fixing all the hidden problems that there were.”
The operators have also gone beyond the requirements of the contract in other ways. Creation of the pier assistants program has improved the experience of visitors and aided in the protection of endangered species, said Sea Turtle Patroller Cathy Holmes, a founding member of the Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center.
Holmes was instrumental in launching the Responsible Pier Initiative on the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier, and she said GSRE has jumped on board with the program.
The pier assistants are paid by GSRE to patrol up and down the pier and engage with guests, provide golf cart rides, teach fishing techniques and occasionally rescue hooked sea turtles.
“They are unbelievable. I couldn’t ask for better partners in the Responsible Pier Initiative. They do exactly what they are supposed to do, and they are great with educating not just about the sea turtles but all around,” Holmes said.
More progress is still on the way, Fountain said.
“We have some great additions to come like bringing back the movies on the beach and other family-friendly events,” he said.
These events would be over and above the work required by the contract.