Three Flagler County commissioners are uneasy about the county administration’s plan to partly bail out the troubled Florida Agriculture Museum on Old Kings Road while also acquiring some 400 acres of the museum’s land. The acquisition would result in essentially a new county park, adding to the county’s costs—marginally at first, more substantially in the future should the county decide to develop the acquisition.
The county administration and Commission Chairman Nate McLaughlin sees the acquisition not as a new county park but as an extension of the Princess Place Preserve. But the Preserve, acquired with grants from the Florida Community Trust and the St. Johns River Water Management District, has its own management plan and strict restrictions as to how it may be exploited for recreation or development. It was on the promise of the preserve as a jewel of conservationism that county residents then overwhelmingly approved then renewed a referendum devoting a portion of property tax revenue to Environmentally Sensitive Lands.
Geographically attaching the preserve’s 1,350 acres to the 400-acre acquisition from museum land would increase the preserve’s size by a third, while giving the county a playground for more intense recreational activities it could not pull off inside the preserve. That’s been the aim of the county’s tourist development division. But it would also dilute the preserve’s promise, though that breach is already under way with the county’s development of “cottages” inside the preserve.
However the county defines the acquisition, it would be a significant addition to the land the county is responsible for managing, and it would be a magnet for future recreational development. Combined with the plan to help the Agriculture Museum but not run it, the county administration’s plan, discussed today with commissioners in a workshop, left several of them uneasy. Even County Administrator Craig Coffey acknowledged that he was asking for a lot. “I’ve given you a whole bunch of information and not a whole lot of time to review it,” he told commissioners.
The plan has little resemblance with bail-out proposals first discussed in October, when the county agreed to take over museum operations temporarily while seeking a fix.
Commissioners Don O’Brien, Dave Sullivan and Charlie Ericksen are concerned that the plan is too vast, too fast, with too many questions unanswered. But they stopped just short of halting Coffey’s momentum as he negotiates a semi-severance agreement with the museum, combining the acquisition with a promise of paying off a $185,000 mortgage the museum holds, awarding a $25,000 annual grant to the museum for the next five years, providing road-grading and mowing services at the county’s expense, adding $50,000 to $100,000 to the county’s annual maintenance costs, and pledging to underwrite many of those costs with dollars from the Tourist Development Council’s funds. (The maintenance costs would be out of general revenue.)
It was the second time in two weeks that Coffey was explicitly tying Tourist Development dollars to a county project without first getting the plan discussed, let alone ratified, by the Tourist Development Council, which by law must provide its recommendations on all amounts spent out of tourist-tax money. (That money is collected through a 4 percent surtax on charges at hotels, motels and other short-term accommodations.) Last week Flagler Beach’s mayor, Linda Provencher, who sits on the tourism council, ripped into the administrator—who was present at a Flagler Beach City Commission meeting—for doing just that.
O’Brien raised the only TDC-related question—whether tourism money could even legally be spent on some of those plans. County Attorney Al Hadeed said the county commission would have to arrive at a “formal finding” that the acquisition and other plans using TDC money would kin fact, benefit tourism. That finding is not yet on the table. But Coffey said “those findings would be easy.”
McLaughlin chairs the tourism council. Neither he nor any of the other commissioners today raised so much as a question about the tourism dollars making their way toward museum-related issues. The commission was not making any decisions today, but it was giving the administrator direction, and in the end, with McLaughlin pressuring his colleagues every time they raised questions about the plan, the administrator at least got the go-ahead to continue negotiating. The matter would still have to come to the commission for a vote, presumably with more questions answered by then.
“We’re not creating a new park, this would be an extension of what we’re already doing in our park system,” McLaughlin said, downplaying the magnitude of the acquisition. But even Coffey cautioned him: all lands and properties the county owns and manages has a certain amount of costs and responsibilities, he said, and “taking on 400 acres will be costly.” Even a single additional employee would be “a $50,000 venture.”
But, Coffey said, also trying to sway hesitant commissioners, if the museum were to go out of business, commissioners would just as likely favor taking over the land, and place themselves in the same position they are now. This new proposal, Coffey said, “limits our liability and limits our involvement,” while still protecting public land and supporting the museum, without micromanaging the museum. “We aren’t proposing do anything earthshattering to take over in 30 days or 60 days,” he said.
“We’re able to keep this state museum asset within the county and help them to stabilize it a little bit,” McLaughlin said, repeating his contention that the plan merely extends Princess Place. “To me that’s what’s intriguing to extend the holdings of that Princess Place, and again, building on that equestrian theme.”
The county has plans to expand equestrian amenities, which, of course, would add costs, though the administrator and McLaughlin said those are separate, future discussions that should not influence the decision at hand. Commissioner Greg Hansen, the newest commissioner, agreed, and was fully behind the Coffey plan (“I like everything that’s in here,” Hansen said.)
But the three other commissioners didn’t see it as categorically, looking instead at costs and unintended consequences outside the narrow frame within which Coffey was presenting the issue.
“It sounds like we’re taking on responsibility, some responsibility, for the agriculture museum,” Sullivan said.
“No,” McLaughlin snapped.
“Well, that $25,000 grant,” Sullivan said, correctly: the county will be taking on that cost at least for the next five years, along with the paying off of the mortgage.
True, McLaughlin said, that annual grant will be less than the money the county is paying out now to subsidize the museum’s troubled operations, as commissioners agreed to do temporarily late last year, so it wouldn’t go out of business. “We’re going to end up at about 60 grands in what we’re doing for them right now,” McLaughlin said. “We’re not picking up museum expenses here.”
“No, it’s a lot more than that,” O’Brien said. That’s what worries O’Brien: what if the museum is again in trouble in the near future? Would the county again be bailing it out?
The relationship with the museum has “greatly improved,” McLaughlin said, but O’Brien, pushing back against a relentless McLaughlin for the first time since the election, said, “that’s ephemeral, you can’t guarantee that.”
“I’m just trying to make sure you have information, I’m not trying to talk you into anything,” McLaughlin said, though the two commissioners had Coffey’s information in front of them.
One of the issues that had given O’Brien pause was the assumption by Coffey that the state would match the county’s $25,000 grant with $30,000 of its own. If that match isn’t real, the county could be on the hook for saving the museum again. “I’m really on the fence about taking on more responsibility here until we have more concrete information about what the state will do,” O’Brien said.
Sullivan put it more bluntly. “The museum is not a big success. Is anything we’re doing now going to make it a bigger success? I hope it does,” he said, but added: “I don’t think this is going to help that problem.”
And Ericksen wanted the museum to submit its own business plan for the next 60 days before the county gave its approval for any subsidies. If the museum shows it can capably run the show, then the county would continue.
But to each of those objections, Hansen, McLaughlin and Coffey retorted that helping the museum and acquiring the museum’s land were separate issues, and that Coffey’s plan was designed to relieve pressure on the museum while adding a new asset to the county’s lands.
The three pro-acquisition voices got their way, for now, but under the fuzziest of circumstances, with the the three reluctant commissioners’ questions unanswered and their concerns unappeased.