It was an odd sight last Saturday on a sidewalk catty-corner from the Flagler Beach Post Office, these two men in shorts and sandals–City Commissioner Rick Belhumeur and 7-Eleven owner Eric Cooley–painting white a pair of odder-looking wooden contraptions that looked like oversize furniture from a dollhouse or really weird pop art.
The contraptions were actually the city’s newest lifeguard towers, two of nine. Though neither men is really a swimmer (“I’m more of a guy who just sits on the beach reading a book,” Cooley says), their work that morning was the culmination of a project by Belhumeur to get all the city’s guard towers replaced in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, at no cost to the city and without even requiring the assistance of public works. The city, the two men reasoned, is busy enough recovering from the storm with commitments of its own.
Keystone Homes, a builder Belhumeur works with (he’s a developer himself), agreed to donate all the labor, Bunnell’s Builders First Source donated all the parts, a Valspar Paint vendor at Lowes in Palm Coast, who turned out to be a lifeguard himself, donated the 10 gallons of paint, gifted the paint. “Now we got 10 gallons in spare.” and Belhumeur, Cooley and six other volunteers–Shannon Albin, Sharon Andre, Rudy Andre, Paul Chestnut, Scott Fox and Tom Witherspoon–volunteered their time, making today’s unveiling possible. The effort, including commemorative plaques that will be nailed to each tower, would have cost $6,500 otherwise, Belhumeur said. Instead, the city may possibly come out ahead, as it may be set to sell eight old guard towers for $100 each as surplus property.
At 2 p.m. today, city commissioners and others are gathering under the Flalger Beach Pier’s A-frame to dedicate the new towers, which should make the city’s 31 lifeguards (including the 25 seasonal ones the city is close to hiring for the summer) quite happy: the towers are designed to be sturdier, more durable, to have a platform on which to stand, as opposed to the older design, where guards had to stand on a step, and the white paint, Belhumeur said, should make it just as bright to see but easier on lifeguards, as the color will absorb heat less than the red of previous towers.
The project is the latest example of a city commission whose every commissioner and the mayor are routinely and deeply involved in various initiatives, from beach cleanups to dune re-plantings to civic-event organizing, that lighten the small city’s workload and make a visible difference to residents’ and visitors’ quality of life, their safety and their environmental welfare.
“I feel good about it, I get a good amount of satisfaction out of being able to help the city,” Belhumeur said.
“We’re in a small town, they’re still working on a lot of the hurricane repairs and things like that,” Cooley said of the city’s work crews. Since they’re so bogged down with work, “we’ll just chip in when we have some spare time and take some of that load off our maintenance department.” Cooley is never distant from an extra-curricular gig on behalf of the city: during a political rally at Veterans Park last week he was picking up garbage. He’s joining crews to be part of the dunes-replanting project started by Commissioner Joy McGrew. He’s part of the Flagler Beach All Stars, with Mayor Linda Provencher, who carry out a monthly beach clean-up. “It’s not a matter of having more time than other people so to speak, it’s just you have to make time for things that are important,” Cooley says.
For Belhumeur, the idea was not just to get new guard towers, but to get ones that would last more than the average three years the current design has been yielding. So Belhumeur thought back to his youth in Maryland, going to the beach in Ocean City–a town of the same name as Flagler Beach’s original name. That town, he says, has seen its guard towers multiply over the years, but also last longer. Last July, well before Hurricane Matthew, he contacted Skip Lee, an Ocean City official with an idea.
“Flagler Beach has eight lifeguard stands that were built by the students at our local High School just over two years ago,” Belhumeur wrote Lee. “Unfortunately, they were poorly engineered, they are breaking and they need to be replaced. As a former Maryland resident and frequent visitor to Ocean City, I immediately thought about the many stands that Ocean City has. After many decades of refinement, I can’t think of anyone that might have a better engineered lifeguard stand than the Ocean City Beach Patrol has. I have shared photos of your stands with our Ocean Rescue and they would love to have ones just like them.”
Soon Lee sent the drawings, and Belhumeur turned them over to Keystone.
“I did it because I was busy repairing the old ones and I thought there was a better way, and figured if somebody had eighty of them probably had them figured out by now,” Belhumeur said.
The guard towers are expected to last closer to seven or eight years, assuming hurricanes, tornadoes, rising seas, sea monsters or a meteor don’t have different ideas.