Why should Flagler Beach government provide a $15,000 subsidy to shuttle visitors in and out of the city on July 4? Why should it cost law enforcement, sanitation, public safety and other agencies a combined $60,000, much of it borne by the city, to manage that single day? Why shouldn’t State Road A1A be shut down for a few city blocks around the pier the night of the fireworks, to create a more festival-like atmosphere? Why should the city keep holding an event that primarily benefits restaurants and bars at the expense of the city’s residents’ peace of mind–and pocketbooks? Why shouldn’t the fireworks show be scaled back–cut by half–to make it less of a draw on that particular day and perhaps keeping traffic from overwhelming the small island city beyond its means?
The Flagler Beach committee city government appointed to study the future of July 4 events and fireworks in the city took on those and other questions at its second meeting this morning as the committee makes its way to January recommendations to the Flagler Beach City Commission. The central questions are whether to keep the fireworks tradition going, and if so, how to organize the event in such a way that the city is not overwhelmed by visitors, as it had been in recent years.
“Is the fireworks something we really have to have?” Police Chief Matt Doughney asked before answering pithily: “I mean, there’s a reason the NFL doesn’t hold the Super Bowl in a city of 5,000.” He’s not exaggerating much: July 4 has drawn almost as many people to the island as can fit in the Miami Dolphins’ stadium.
Beside, Amy Lukasik, the director of county government’s tourism bureau, had a surprise for the committee members this morning: the county’s Tourist Development Council may not be underwriting the $25,000 annual cost of the fireworks for Flagler Beach, or the equivalent cost for Palm Coast’s version of the fireworks around the same time. Asked directly by Scott Spradley, the chairman of the committee, whether that subsidy could end, Lukasik replied: “That it could possibly happen, yes, there is no ongoing commitment forever and ever amen that the TCD would commit to both cities.”
That was unexpected. City officials have long assumed that the fireworks are a natural tourist draw, therefore directly in line with the sort of events the TDC would support. The TDC may be seeing it differently. It hasn’t always underwritten the shows. That started less than a decade ago. Previously, Carla Cline–a committee member–recalled, the city raised money to pay for the show (and the chamber of commerce then in existence did its part).
“So that’s another cost the city would have to incur, at the minimum, $25,000,” Suzie Johnston, the mayor and an ex-officio member of the committee, said.
“It is loud and clear” that everyone wants the fireworks, but those that want it most should bear the cost–among them businesses, Lukasik said, enabling the TDC to refocus its subsidies on events that “last more than 20 minutes.”
“There’s a line of sponsors ready to go,” Scott Fox, another member of the committee and the owner of Tortugas, the restaurant and bar, said.
Lukasik raised the obvious question: “Are we having fireworks on the 4th of July?”
“We don’t know,” said Scott Spradley, the Flagler Beach attorney and chairman of the committee. That answer will be part of the committee’s recommendations, to be submitted to the city commission on Jan 22. (Na earlier version of this article incorrectly placed the due date at July 22.) But based on the committee’s discussions in their two meetings so far, and based on what the committee members have gathered through informal surveys over the past two weeks, the issue is a vexing one: the idea of the fireworks is more appealing than its reality, depending on what side of the fence people are.
The committee has a challenge: whose wishes should prevail on July 4–those of existing residents, businesses or visitors?
The answers, the committee members related based on those informal surveys, are that no single group has precedence over the other. Existing residents are somewhere between indifferent and nostalgic about the day, many of them no longer going into town anymore because of the throngs of visitors. Restaurants depend on the day’s events, including the fireworks, to thrive. Visitors are not represented on the committee, but their numbers speak loud enough: they’ll keep coming, maybe to the chagrin of existing residents, making them the least controlled, most fluid variable. There is some agreement, however, that residents would be appalled to find that the city’s tax revenue was underwriting free shuttle buses to bring people in and out, at an annual cost of $15,000 (at least for the three years before covid suspended the fireworks.)
Panel members would much rather see some form of parking charge assessed–not free transportation. But where and how to levy those charges is the question.
Lukasik said Palm Coast is having the same challenges: the city is running out of space in Town Center, where it’s been holding its fireworks show since 2010. Town Center is building up, parking spaces are diminishing.
“Everyone loves fireworks, but there’s another side to the coin, that’s why we’re here, to figure these things out,” Spradley said after going through an outline of the many less visible costs associated with the Independence Day festivities.
“Everybody wants fireworks, they’re great,” Johnston said. “Yeah but they wreck–I mean you can’t burn the city to the ground.” Johnston represents one of the two cardinal points on the committee: she has represented the point of view that fireworks on July 4 could be ended, handed over entirely to Palm Coast, while Flagler Beach could refocus on a new tradition such as New Year’s Eve fireworks. That would give businesses a boost during a usually slow period of the year. The opposite pole is represented by Fox, for whom fireworks have a direct bearing on the bottom line. He doesn’t want to see them scrapped. He wants better traffic management and public safety.
Fox found that the absence of fireworks in Flagler Beach the last two years created a different kind of problem: “I’ve asked all of my neighbors this and you know what the number one thing I hear is the fireworks outside of the [July 4 show], the consumer fireworks the last two years has been unbearable. They say, by taking away the large fireworks, now everybody has gone out and spent $500 on fireworks for the house, and it starts at 5 p.m. and it goes until 5 a.m.” (Fox isn’t big on New Year’s fireworks, seeing that event in a different light.)
The other members of the committee fall between the Johnston and Fox poles. Their surveys reflected the same ambivalence. Carla Cline, for example, found that long-time residents have given up on July 4, preferring to keep to themselves on a day of chaos and overbearing traffic. They were apparently glad not to have the event the last two years.
“The residents that I talked to loved it that way because when I spoke to them, they had their town back,” Police Chief Matt Doughney said, referring to the last July 4, when there were no fireworks, no parade, no organized events.
Butch Naylor, another committee member, conducted a more elaborate survey, speaking with 17 people and summing up his findings in a print-out. But he, too, found opinions breaking down across a spectrum from indifference (or elimination of fireworks) to better organization of transportation options and the like.
The various surveys, Spradley said, reflect the committee’s own varied perspectives, leaving it to the committee to figure things out. “We’re very much on the front end of what we want to drill down on,” he said. “You’ve got the common interest, the fireworks, then you’re back to the safe way to do it. If there isn’t a safe way to do it, then it won’t happen. But we have a dozen meetings to figure it out.”
The committee and city staff will be studying certain options, such as closing A1A for a few hours (which would require the state transportation department’s permission), an option the police chief and City Manager William Whitson say would merely shift chaotic traffic and parking to the interior parts of the city. The committee will also be studying what Whitson called a “multi-modal” way of addressing transportation issues: finding ways to encourage visitors to ride bicycles, Ubers and Lyfts, possibly still some shuttle buses, though the $15,000 cost of underwriting those buses with city funds appears to have little support.
There is more support on the committee for charging visitors for transportation and parking options–an element that would itself have its own dampening effect on excessive crowds.
The central question–whether to have fireworks or not–remains quite far from answered for now, though if there are hints of a consensus emerging so far, it is that more members of the committee–and the city administration–are inclined against continuing the tradition than preserving it, with accumulating data to make their point.