Everywhere one goes in the Beaches of South Walton, people say "10 years ago ... ": This was a lonesome beach 10 years ago. None of these strip malls were here 10 years ago. Heck, 10 years ago, this was a two-lane road through a forest. You could get a house around here for nothing 10 years ago.
Traveling east on US 98, my host and I headed for Scenic Highway 30A, a 20-mile strip along the Gulf Coast that is the heart of the place I'd been brought in to see.
"Up until about 10 years ago," my host says, "hardly anybody knew this road was here."
No more. By the end of my tour, when I had seen all 13 "eclectic beach communities" collectively known as the Beaches of South Walton, it was astoundingly clear what happened here about 10 years ago: The Machine found the place.
You know the Machine. It finds places and fills them up. It develops sleepy little nooks into communities of resorts, condos, fancy restaurants, and golf courses. It forms marketing plans to fill $200 hotel rooms and sell $35 steaks. It raises property values and brings in hordes of service-industry employees who live on the fringes and work three jobs driving shuttles and making lattes and folding sheets. It serves cocktails on the beach. It surrounds fishing towns with skyscrapers.
The Machine has come for South Walton, and it can't be stopped. But the folks who live here have a plan. It's apparent that they looked around at their neighbors and said, "Not here -- not all of it, anyway." They set aside forested strips of land as state parks, even reserving some beaches for walk-in-only access. All the other beaches are entirely accessible to the public, and boardwalks connect 30A to the white sands at numerous places. They limited buildings to four floors. They make serious, successful efforts to keep the beaches clean. Even the name, "Beaches of South Walton" (which, of course, is less than 10 years old), reflects a collective search for an identity -- and/or a slick marketing campaign. Even as construction explodes in every direction, the PR materials constantly refer to "the pure and simple Beaches of South Walton."
Such is the pitch: great beaches and every luxury you could want but not completely over the top. We still have some real nature! And we barely got touched by the hurricanes!
And yet the Machine churns. As America gets older and the rich get richer, the Machine gets hungrier. And it doesn't build for the working class. Scenic Highway 30A is now the scene of such things as Blue Mountain Beach, which "offers spectacular views of the coastline, making it a hot spot for lavish homes and condominiums." Offerings include Redfish Village, the Village of Blue Mountain Beach, and the Retreat.
WaterColor and WaterSound Beach, owned by a logging company, are both "Southern [themed] coastal resorts." Seaside is "designing buildings to fill empty parcels" while planning a "splendid plaza" and a tower "in the center of town." Alys Beach bills itself as "a traditional neighborhood development" with "environmentally friendly courtyard homes with whitewashed masonry and rooftop terraces." Seacrest Beach touts "marshlands perfect for wading birds" and extensive plantings of live oaks -- on a golf course. Rosemary Beach, all of 11 years old, went for the Dutch/West Indies theme: "Bermuda shutters, wide second-floor porches, and arched garage doors."
It's a heaping helping of Vegas in the Florida Panhandle, with "beach solitude" replacing "win big" as the central pitch. In both places, the Machine churns out high-end shopping and dining, seven-figure homes and condos, designer golf courses, and brand-new "towns" filled with the food and music of other places.
Consider: A couple years ago, Sandestin, the biggest and oldest resort around, built its own "village" of shops that includes an Acme Oyster House straight from New Orleans and an artificial pond with an "Italian" gondolier. Through this village, every year, winds a golf-cart Mardi Gras parade.
Or this: Seaside proudly proclaims that it was the main location for The Truman Show -- a movie about a man who unknowingly lived in a false world.
There's more of this coming: a big, new airport -- the Machine demands multiple nonstops daily -- and developments popping up everywhere you look.
The question remains: Can you market a place to death? In South Walton, the counted-on answer is to make peace with the Machine and try to limit it: in other words, be a shopping/dining/beach/condo/gallery/golf destination that manages to retain more than its share of quiet, natural moments.
If, on the other hand, you're looking for that quiet little fishing village with the mom-and-pop restaurant out on the dock, it's too late for South Walton. The Machine already got it.