As Bunnell Cancels Christmas and Potato Festival, Private Group Aims to Save Both
FlaglerLive | October 28, 2014
When the Bunnell City Commission approved its austerity program to close a nearly $1 million deficit in July, one of the items on the chopping list was the cancellation of “all events for the remainder of 2014 and 2015.” Few people realized at the time that it would mean the end of the Potato Festival and the city’s Christmas celebration.
“I didn’t cancel Christmas. I’m not the Grinch,” City Manager Larry Williams said at a city commission meeting Monday evening, after being criticized by a resident for eliminating events. “It was a vote by the city commission that cancelled events as part of our cost-cutting.”
There may yet be a few glimmers of Christmas in the city come December—the Christmas lights will go up, the city may offer a hay ride, but it’s not likely to be anything like the lavish celebration of last December, when the manager trucked in a snow machine and Santa Claus distributed gifts.
But there will not be a Potato Festival and its accompanying parade. At least not one run by either the city or the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce, which ran the French fries and beer concessions in previous festivals.
“Our budget is squeaking, there’s just absolutely no money to have any events,” Williams said. WNZF approached the city to explore possibilities of pairing the Potato Festival with the annual county fair. But that proposal went nowhere, in part because of timing. The fair is in early April. The potato festival has been held in late May, after the potato harvest, Chamber President Rebecca DeLorenzo said.
“We are just right now beginning to have conversations to try to figure out if we’re going to have a potato festival this year and if we do what does it look like,” DeLorenzo said. But she said the chamber is not able to put up the staffing the festival would need, nor is the city in a position to do so anymore, especially with Judi Stetson gone: she used to be the city’s special projects director. The Potato Festival was pretty much her doing. She was part of the staff cuts in July.
“I don’t know if we’ll be able to do it because now we could possibly have to look at paying rental of the park and pay staff time and all of that,” DeLorenzo said.
But something like the Potato Festival could be in the works.
Mari Molina, who heads Flagler Cats in Bunnell, addressed the commission Monday evening to announce she was making a public record request for all financial numbers related to the Potato Festival and the Christmas celebration. She’s looking for an accurate accounting of the festival’s cost—she says getting the numbers from Williams has been “like pulling teeth”—because she is preparing to take over the festival and run it privately, under a different name. She is also hoping to raise money to keep the Christmas celebration in place. “I am sure if we all work together we can make Christmas happen in the city of Bunnell,” she told the commission.
Molina says she and a few other local businesses and volunteers are working toward creating what will be called the Bunnell Agricultural Festival. It will take place on the same day in late May, in the same location, on the park grounds around the city’s old coquina city hall. “We’re not going to call it the Bunnell Potato Festival,” Molina said. “We have nothing to do with it. We’ll have the agriculture, we’ll have the potatoes, we’ll have the cattlemen, we’ll have different organizations who take part in it. Everything will be at the same place.”
In an interview Monday afternoon, Williams said he didn’t know the exact cost of running the festival, but that he guessed it was around $10,000 to $15,000, chiefly because of personnel and overtime costs for police and fire protection, and public works.
“I don’t think it was that much, that’s why I want to see the numbers,” Molina said. “I think it’s closer to $10,000. Could be $8,000 to $10,000.” If costs are in that range, “that would be feasible for us.” Flagler Cats, under its non-profit designation, would pull the license to sell beer at the event.
“All I need is the numbers so I can sit doesn’t with each person and say OK, this is my plan, are you part of it,” Molina said. “Right now, as of today, I would tell you I’m 90 percent sure it’ll go.”
Molina, never a friend of Williams’s—she has often lambasted him publicly, during city commission meetings, since he was appointed manager—has also volunteered, along with Bunnell business owner Thea Mathen, to pick up the roughly $1,000 cost of Bunnell’s Halloween celebration, which takes place every year in Saw Mills Estates. The neighborhood is closed to traffic, lights are set up, and families can roam the streets in search of treats from house to house.
The city recognized Mathen Monday evening for her service as a volunteer over the years, with a plaque, a few speeches and cake. At the time, she was unaware of Molina’s plan to take over the Potato Festival.
Williams said the city hasn’t given up on the festival. The city must “bite the bullet this year and come back bigger and better and stronger a year from now,” he said.