A visitor center open for less than four months in the tourism hot spot of Destin may soon have
to close. The center’s lease came into question during an investigation into spending by the former director of the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council, who died of an apparent suicide in May.
The Destin Harbor waterfront is dotted with shaved-ice shacks, pukka shell vendors, charter boats, and, since March, a new Okaloosa County Visitor Center. Tourists enter a swanky lobby boasting dark wood paneling with gold accents. The patio overlooks the signature Florida Panhandle white sand and emerald water. But this first impression for visitors is in jeopardy—because when the County Commission authorized the lease on this building, they believed a lie told by former Tourist Development Council director Mark Bellinger, who died of an apparent suicide last month.
Interim TDC director Greg Donovan says Bellinger told the County Commission that the visitor center lease would cost $1 per year, but at the same time, unbeknownst to commissioners, he agreed to pay the building’s owner about $230,000 in "marketing costs" over the next five years. Forty-five thousand dollars was already paid under the secret agreement, which was uncovered through an investigation into several of Bellinger’s purchases, including a yacht and his nearly-$1 million home—all purchased with public funds.
“I don’t know if I’m going to be able to correct over the next couple of months the damage that’s been created by illegal activity and the wrongdoing of Mr. Bellinger," Donovan says. "By his decisions, he betrayed public trust.”
The Destin visitor center lease expires at the end of July, and in light of the scandal, the building’s owner, Peter Bos, has agreed to let the county out of the lease altogether. Lawyers are working to determine the county’s obligation, but Okaloosa County Commissioner Dave Parisot says he would vote to shutter the center rather than paying more than $1 dollar per year to stay, even in the midst of peak tourist season.
“The thing that brings the tourists in…if they’re going to the welcome center, they’re already here," he says.
Several agencies, including the state auditor general and the FBI, continue investigating Bellinger’s mismanagement of funds. Meanwhile, a committee appointed by the Okaloosa County Board of Commissioners is narrowing down candidates in their search for the next TDC director. They will decide on their short list at the board's July 3 meeting.