Two hundred and ninety six days after one mayor quoted Nietzsche just before ceremonially turning dirt on the future grounds of the Palm Coast Arts Foundation’s outdoor stage, a different mayor on Saturday stood on the completed stage, “the durable concert stage where musicians, dancers and conductors will entertain us.”
Moments later, Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland, Flagler County Commission Chairman Nate McLaughlin and two dozen other people who had a hand in making the arts foundation’s first tangible, permanent project a reality picked up their scissors and cut the longest ribbon ever stretched for a ribbon-cutting in the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce’s history—96 feet. It had stretched and fluttered across the length of the white stage like the last boundary between the foundation’s many years of wishful plans and the first stage it can call its own, at its home on Central Avenue in Town Center.
“If I close my eyes,” Holland said, reading from prepared remarks, “I can imagine trumpets, horns, violins and harps playing Chopin, Beethoven and the music of Disney. When I open my eyes, I’m looking out on the audience component of this venue, designed to accommodate as many as 4,500 guests.”
A very large crowd will be filling the lawn in front of the stage come late May when the arts foundation hosts its signature annual event, the Picnic and Pops concert with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. For the past 11 years (actually, nine, counting a year when it was rained out and a year when it moved to Ormond Beach because of rain) the foundation held its concert a few blocks down Central Avenue, around Central Park, with the orchestra making do with a makeshift stage at the same level as the audience, under a big tent. The concerts always combined the charm of outdoor concerts with the jazziness of a pops repertoire, but it never felt like home: the foundation was on borrowed grass, with the city of Palm Coast extending the welcome sod.
A landmark to help define the city’s cultural identity.
Then came last May’s first-ever pops concert on the foundation’s own grounds (deeded, it should be said, by the city as part of the larger plans for Town Center, which always envisioned a performing arts venue there). A mound the size of those Indian burial grounds in Mississippi was built to elevate the orchestra’s performing space, 110 picnic tables seating 10 each jammed the space in front of the mound to accommodate 1,200 people (there were many more people without tables), and off went the orchestra with renditions of Elgar, Handel Bernstein and John Williams. (No Chopin or Beethoven, who tend to be either too precious or too serious for pops evenings.)
But the grounds were still a mosaic of newness, with the sod beneath patrons’ feet too young yet to have lost its slices and lumpiness. On Saturday, almost a year later, the grass was greener on its own side, in front of the stage, as Sam Perkovich, president of the Palm Coast Arts Foundation and the driving force, with Nancy Crouch, behind its successes of the past few years, led a long line of elected officials past and present, business leaders and foundation members and supporters, filling a couple of rows of chairs to face an audience only a little bit larger. The Flagler Beach Christmas parade was beginning right about then, and had surely drained the majority of the county’s leisure-seeking public.
McLaughlin, the county commissioner, theatrically surprised everyone by pulling out a $150,000 check out of his jacket and presenting it to Perkovich: it’s the grant the foundation had applied for from the Tourist Development Council, which oversees the spending of revenue from the county’s 4 percent surplus sales tax levied on hotels, motels and other short-term rentals—what’s usually called the bed tax, paid mostly by visitors.
Most of that revenue is spent on seeking out hit-and-run sports events or conferences that parachute crowds in and out for a weekend to this venue or that posh resort without fostering much of an identity for the county, other than as a welcome mat. But by law a portion of the revenue must be spent on capital projects that create more lasting cultural value for the county itself, to be of lasting appeal to tourists (and residents). Those $150,000 grants have helped the Flagler Auditorium, the Flagler Beach pier, the Indian Trails Sports Complex (where so many of those parachuting sports events are held), and now, the Palm Coast Arts Foundation.
“It’s wonderful to bring this level of arts and culture to the community,” McLaughlin said, handing the check to Perkovich.
The money covered just under half the cost of the $320,000 stage, but it matched a state grant that the foundation also received, with the difference paid for with additional fund-raising (such as the Picnics and Pops concert).
Next, however, is the plan to build a roof over the stage, a project that’ll cost anywhere between half a million dollars and $1.2 million, Perkovich said. “It’s all dependent upon building materials,” she said. That’ll require a new fund-raising campaign, called, of course, “Raise the Roof.”
“I think it’ll be two years before we have the roof unless we have a big donor,” Perkovich said. Beyond that, the venue’s events center will be built behind the stage. The center will accommodate conferences, weddings, graduation ceremonies and the like. But that’s a few years more down the road.
On Saturday, Holland didn’t have to close her eyes long to hear the music: the foundation’s Barrie Michaels, its relatively new director of marketing and events, had prepared a lineup of performers to fill the afternoon, including comedians, dancers, and a performance by the Flagler Youth Orchestra. Michaels and Perkovich hope to fill the new stage with regular events, whether it’s plays produced by John Sbordone’s City Repertory Theatre troupe or chamber events or musical acts.
“What can we do to champion this project?” asked Holland. “Let’s be really proactive. Make sure to constantly check out the upcoming events on social media. Spread the news to your friends and family and plan to attend. Become an organization member. Share some of your favorite recommendations with the staff. Purchase a personalized brick paver for this property. What we are all putting together here requires a powerful response.”