The Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council have given unanimous approval to moving forward with a proposed visitor center at Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport.

VALPARAISO – The Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council have given unanimous approval to moving forward with a proposed visitor center at Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport.

Several council members embraced the idea of ae center that features modern interactive displays about the area and a friendly staff who make travel-weary visitors thankful to be in Okaloosa County without having to deal with sales pitches.

Working in partnership with the airport, the TDC proposes setting up the center in a vacant, 691-square-foot kiosk that formerly was used by a rental car company. The space is between the Avis/Budget and National/Alamo car rental kiosks and on the west side of the baggage claim area.

Federal Aviation Administration regulations would require the Tourist Development Department to pay the market rental rate of about $55,000 per year, according to county information. Other costs would include renovation and staffing expenses.

At the TDC’s Nov. 15 meeting, the council agreed to have department Director Jennifer Adams work with county Airports Director Tracy Stage to cement the details, including a project timeline, an annual operations plan and budget, and lease terms.

Ideally, county officials could secure a one-year lease term with various options to renew, council members said.

Before the council agreed to move forward with the visitor center project, Adams noted that the airport’s passenger numbers have been quite steady and growing.

In fact, Stage recently announced that the aiport set a new record for fiscal 2017 with a total of 1,134,209 passengers. That was almost 30 percent higher than the previous record of 874,277 passengers in fiscal 2016.

“The thing about coming to the airport is that a lot of people now, with the flights from different cities, might not necessarily be staying here in Okaloosa County,” Adams said at the TDC meeting. “And if they’re coming down off the terminal and into the baggage claim area, they’re there for 20 minutes getting their car or their luggage, and what better way than to have us greet them” at a visitor center. “I do think it would be a great way for us to showcase our destination as well as our industry partners.”

Adams said an advertising firm has many ads displayed at the airport about Walton County Road 30A and destinations to the west.

“Our welcome center would give us an opportunity to showcase OUR industry partners,” she said.

In response to a question from TDC member Ron Guidry, Adams said while the center would need to be staffed seven days a week, county staff is still studying the appropriate hours of operation.

“It doesn’t need to be open from 7 o’clock in the morning until 9 at night,” she said.

Replying to comments from TDC Vice Chairwoman Melissa Matern, Adams said the department could work with lodging and other tourism industry partners to help man the visitor center, thereby offsetting some of the costs.

After Adams verified that Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport near Panama City Beach has a visitor center, TDC Chairman Bruce Craul noted that the proposed center would not be “something new to our area, it’s just new to our airport.”

“In the hospitality business, the most important person that everybody sees is when you walk in the door and the guest-service representative says, ‘Hello, welcome to … ’ and in this case, ‘Hello, welcome to our area,’ with a big smile, and they’re extroverted and make you feel welcome,” Craul added.

At VPS, “The only way they’re going to get that right now is from the TSA (Transportation Security Administration), which is an acronym for ‘Thousands of people Standing Around,’” he said.

After laughs from fellow council members, Craul continued.

He noted the value of “having a nice, friendly, fun-loving, enthusiastic person behind a desk that almost causes you to want to go over and talk to them. We certainly don’t want any hardcore sales kinda stuff. It goes beyond, to me, a welcome center. It’s an airport concierge.”

Councilman Trey Goodwin said that was a great way to put it.

“The concierge can help our local businesses,” Goodwin said. “When I travel, it’s very nice to have that resource available.”