SANTA ROSA BEACH — Walton County commissioners are taking a measured approach to a Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) effort to get a digital tourism application up and running.
Initial plans call for the app to allow tourists to book beach set-ups (umbrellas and chairs) from vendors, but over the longer term, the app is envisioned as a home for accessing other tourist-related services, including, among other things, weather information, trip planning assistance and live webcams providing views of the area.
Additionally, the app also would include the capacity for issuing “push notifications,” providing immediate information to users with regard to beach safety issues such as dangerous rip currents.
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Funding for the app would come from the 5% “bed tax” assessed to visitors to the county. The tax raises millions of dollars each year, with expenditures requiring approval of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners.
After hearing from TDC Executive Director Jay Tusa at a recent commission meeting, and after seeing a 31-page request for proposals (RFP) from qualified digital app developers, commissioners voted unanimously to bring in a local third-party expert to take a look at the lengthy document before it is made public for responses from any interested parties.
“I know what the purpose of the app is, and I think that’s the direction we need to go in,” said Commissioner Mike Barker, who made the motion for the third-party review. But, Barker added, “some of the technical stuff is over my head … and reading the RFP, some of the wording I don’t get.”
“I would ask that we let an uninterested third party — somebody that’s got some IT experience — look over this and make sure we’re not forgetting something,” Barker said, going on to mention the name of someone he thought was qualified to do the work.
Commissioners went with Barker’s suggestion, but indicated that the expert’s work with the TDC — there was no indication how much, or even whether, the expert would be paid for weighing in on the RFP — would have to be kept secret.
“We need to make real sure that what (the third-party reviewer) does in working with the TDC … doesn’t get out to the public,” cautioned Commissioner Tony Anderson, “because we have local people that are going to be bidding on this, and we don’t want them to have an unfair advantage or disadvantage. I don’t want anybody … that somehow gets disqualified because they had information beforehand.”
In presenting the RFP to commissioners, Tusa noted that the initial focus on beach set-ups reflected earlier discussions with them, in which they expressed a desire for getting some control over when and where beach “sets” are being rented and placed. That concern came in response to continuing citizen complaints about the number of “ghost sets” — set-ups installed, but not occupied — on the county’s beaches.
“We wanted to focus primarily on the beach vending components as we launch this, and then we could add those (other services) later,” Tusa said.
According to the RFP, the app also could be expected eventually to provide some services to assist the county government, including issuance of permits required for special events, bonfires and other beach activities, and the ability to collect fines levied against beach vendors for violations of local regulations.
The app developer eventually selected for the project will be expected, the RFP notes, to provide the county with demographic data derived from the app, including the tracking of app downloads, the number of active users, the parts of the world from which the app is being accessed, and what services available through the app are being used.
Under terms of the RFP, the app developer which eventually could be selected for the project — the document gives the county the right to reject any or all responses — must have at least three years of experience in app development, and will be required to submit no less than three examples of successful app developments that parallel the county’s needs.
As written, the RFP gives any interested developers until June 5 to submit questions to the county about its request, with the current schedule calling for the county to open any received proposals on the afternoon of July 5 before making any decisions on how to proceed.