After several contentious meetings, the Tourist Development Council has ordered the Apalachicola Maritime Museum to alter a sign at the St. George Island Visitor Center.
The sign was part of a triptych; three signs mounted together, one advertising the visitor center, one advertising the Lighthouse Museum and Gift Shop and one crediting the TDC for supporting the two facilities.
Terry Kemp, treasurer for the St. George Island Lighthouse Association, said the association, the maritime museum (AMM) and TDC board member Alice Collins worked together on the design for the signs and on choosing a vendor to create them. Kemp said her association paid for the sign advertising the lighthouse museum. The lighthouse association and the visitor center split the cost of the TDC sign and the installation of the triptych, about $4,300 total.
George Kirvin Floyd, founder of the AMM, said the visitor center sign was approved and paid for by the TDC.
The visitor center sign reads “St. George Island, Official Host Visitor Center” and incorporates the logo of the AMM including the slogan, “Maritime Museum, Events Trips and Training.”
At the April 3 TDC meeting, the content of the sign was criticized as promoting the AMM directly.
“There is no separation of the business and services they provide and the visitor center.” said TDC board member Rex Pennycuff. “I don’t think visually that you can make that distinction. I’m gonna speak for a lot of people and the consensus I’ve heard is that they are promoting themselves.“
Fishing guide Charles Wilson said, “That’s the consensus of some of the guides. I don’t think TDC money can be used to benefit one person or one business. I think that’s illegal.”
TDC member Chester Reese, who also is charter fishing captain, moved that “offensive language” be removed from the sign.
“I think it will bring people in,” said Collins, who also owns a St. George island vacation rental company. “Let’s not take it off right now. I think it helps us promote from Franklin County.”
The TDC voted to instruct the AMM to remove their slogan from the sign, with Collins, Frank Cook and Paul Parker opposed.
Fishing guides speak out at committee hearing
The move came after several St. George Island merchants attended the March 6 meeting of the TDC and expressed concerns about the operation of the visitor center and the sign. In response to their complaints, the TDC appointed a committee to discuss the operation of the visitor center at a March 28 special meeting held at the Eastpoint Firehouse.
The committee, Cal Allen, Pennycuff and Reese, was accompanied by TDC staffers Curt Blair and Fran Edwards. About 25 people, many of them fishing guides, attended that meeting.
Pennycuff told the group that the operation of the visitor centers was on the table for discussion, but the sign would be an agenda item at the regular April TDC meeting.
“We want to discuss how the visitor centers have worked in the past and even the playing field for everyone involved,” he said.
Newt Colston, president of the St. George Island Civic Association, said he and about 125 island residents who had formerly volunteered at the visitor center had concerns about the knowledge of the current staff.
“We had a lot of knowledge. A lot of the staff now are young folks who haven’t grown up on St. George Island and don’t know about the businesses,” he said.
Colston said he knew of an instance when a visitor had been told he must go to Apalachicola to buy bait. “Folks are disappointed with the knowledge of people working there. Not that these kids are bad or anything else; they just don’t know,” he said.
Jennifer Daniels, who Floyd said was in charge of staffing at the visitor center, told the meeting that the printed visitor guide created by the TDC was the source for any information given to visitors, and that a copy of it is given to everybody who entered the visitor center.
In a telephone interview following the meeting, Floyd said the visitor center was staffed with AMM employees and on-the-job trainees provided and paid by the Workforce Center in Panama City. He said the Workforce trainees often worked only briefly before leaving to take advantage of other educational opportunities. He said training of staff was ongoing.
Augusta West, executive director of AMM, said any county merchant was welcome to display brochures and business cards at the visitor center. “I welcome this (meeting as a) public forum,” she said.
Blair said the committee meeting would allow the TDC to “sort through some issues in a very specific way.” He said he believed any misunderstanding or disagreement was merely the result of the transition in administration of the visitor center.
Floyd said some island businesses were unhappy because his employees were distributing the TDC directory instead of a “short list of fishing guides” restricted to those based on the island, which he said was distributed by “the former regime.”
Speaking after the meeting, former visitor center volunteers said lists of various businesses, especially restaurants, were distributed but none recalled a “short list” of island guides.
Questions raised on museum’s business
Some members of the audience expressed concern that, AMM, a registered 501c3 not-for-profit corporation, offers kayak rentals and charters boats.
“Do you think it’s fair for somebody who owns a guide service to run the visitor center on the island?” asked Alan “Woodduck” Richards.
Charter Captain Rex Phipps said, “We contribute to bed tax. We are entertainers. I buy insurance. I buy brochures. We’re spending a lot of money to make our telephones ring. We just want equal footing. If the TDC would respect that I’d be eternally grateful.”
Floyd said that all not-for-profits raise money.
“The St. George Island Lighthouse Association sold memberships, bricks and climbs. We stopped all of that,” he said. “It’s about educating for our maritime heritage. We do a lot of education,” he said.
Angela Troy, owner of Island Outfitters, accused Floyd of booking reservations for AMM activities at the visitor center. Floyd denied doing so.
Troy’s allegations that tours and rentals were booked at the visitor center are supported by statements from several former volunteers who said they were immediately trained to book reservations for AMM when the maritime museum took over the visitor center.
Floyd said island merchants had spied on the visitor center. He said a survey carried out by his staff in March showed fewer than 2 percent of visitor center inquiries dealt with kayak rentals.
“On the St George Island Visitor Center web page there’s a huge icon that goes straight to the Apalachicola Maritime Museum,” said Troy.
Blair said the icon had been removed. “The website link was there for lighthouse association,” said West. “We just changed the link to the maritime museum.”
She said several county businesses, including AMM, had not been listed on the web directory for the island visitor center when AMM took possession. Blair said it was difficult to keep business listings up to date.
Floyd said he plans to update the business listings for the visitor center website. He said his employees will visit individual businesses so they have first hand information.
Pennycuff said Daniels recently visited his Eastpoint store and interviewed him.
Pennycuff adjourned the fact finding meeting after an hour. He summed up the discussion by saying the committee would take everyone’s concerns back to the TDC.
“Our hope is we can treat everyone as fair as we possibly can,” he said.
Chamber offered to consider managing center
At the regular April 3 TDC meeting, Reese told the board the fact-finding meeting had been “very calm and open.”
He said the TDC needs to “provide a basic roadmap for visitor centers about how to approach people when they walk through the door. “
TDC Chair Pinki Jackel asked if the committee had recommendations.
Reese said the TDC should sign a contract with each visitor center. All and only Franklin County businesses should be represented at the centers and no specific business should ever be named. He suggested staff be uniformly trained and that centers should investigate ways to promote county businesses.
Reese asked if a not-or-profit must manage the centers.
Blaire said the original TDC policy was for chambers of commerce to manage the centers, but because the island never formed a chamber, the TDC signed a one-year contract in 2007 with the lighthouse association to staff the visitor center, which was renewed annually.
In March 2012, the lighthouse association informed the TDC that they would not renew their contract, which expired Oct. 1.
After the island civic association and other not-for-profits expressed no interest in managing the center, the TDC chose AMM, based in Apalachicola, to run it. Beverly Hewitt, who serves on both the TDC and the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce, said Chamber Director Anita Grove was rebuffed by the TDC board when she offered to approach her chamber board about possibly running the center.
AMM signed an agreement in Sept.2012, to assume leadership at the visitor center, beginning Oct. 1.
While the TDC footed the bill for the visitor center sign, more than $6,000, it is unclear whether they approved the design. Hewitt said she does not believe the “verbiage” was discussed. Parker and Allen both say they don’t remember. Members of the lighthouse association say the design was set before Collins took the proposal before the TDC. Floyd said he is sure the content was discussed at the Jan. 2 TDC meeting and that Parker raised concerns about the sign’s content.
Floyd said the word Apalachicola was removed from the logo in deference to TDC concerns. He said he plans to have the signmaker match the paint and cover the slogan but is disappointed that so much controversy erupted. “This should be about what people visiting the area want to know and not about fighting over a sign,” Floyd said.
During the discussion at the April meeting, Hewitt suggested that in the future, all visitor center signs be identical. Jackel said this could be a topic for discussion at future TDC marketing committee meetings.