End the Flagler Beach Independence Day Parade?
Flagler Beach City Manager William Whitson had a daring–if not an explosive–devil’s advocate sort of proposal for the City Commission-appointed committee tasked with re-evaluating the city’s Independence Day fireworks and other activities.
“Could we trade the parade for just activities in the park and let the summit or the high point of the event be the fireworks?,” Whitson said. “Now, some people would say yes, some people would say no. It’s an idea that if you’re looking at safety, traffic congestion, the flow the events, all those kinds of things: it’s a thought that we would like to throw out on the table.” There would be family-friendly activities in the park, tents set up for businesses and non-profits and other attractions. There’d be organized parking and shuttle buses. There’d be cool-down zones, “with the eye towards just having it slowly ramp up instead of it going up all of a sudden up in the morning and for the parade,” then down and back up with the fireworks.
The committee was not thrilled, though Scott Fox, the owner of Tortugas restaurant, had a question of his own: why not a boat parade instead? Again, that didn’t seem to stick.
“Well I’ll just put it out there, I’m not for getting rid of the parade,” Mayor Suzie Johnston–an ex-officio member of the panel–said. “I feel like that’s part of Flagler Beach history. It’s a lot of the small town charm. You talk about an event that brings families together, and that’s one, that’s something that’s the core of our community, is a family friendly type of a thing and that’s one of them. That’s where we don’t have the safety [issue]. There’s no one drunk at the parade.”
On the other hand, there was clear consensus for significantly cutting back on the size of the parade, which in recent years, before covid, was stretching past 100 entrants, included politicians, every business that wanted to enter, public safety agencies and the odd kitchen sink, as long as it was on wheels.
“I like the idea of figuring out a way to scale it back,” Scott Spradley, the attorney and chairman of the committee, said. “I had my daughter when she was a young kid and even she’s like dad, can we leave now.” Spradley is suggesting cutting back the number of participants but giving them other ways to participate in the day and have visibility.
Among the ideas that emerged: parade entrants would have to pay a fee, all politicians, who tend to swarm in the parade at election time (and ignore it or the city the rest of the time) would be excluded, so would businesses that don’t build a full-fledged float. “We don’t need 800 police officers and 800 firemen,” Johnston said. And the number of entrants would be capped. The number Johnston proposed was 40. Committee members noted that the city also has the Christmas parade, which also draws its own endless cortege, though the temperature in December is usually less purgatorial. “It’s been painful to watch in the last few years,” Carla Cline, a member of the committee, said. “And it was 1000 degrees out.”
“I lived in Santa Barbara California for years and they have their summer solstice parade,” Rick Bowen, another member of the committee, said, “and they have strict rules about who can and can’t be in the parade. It’s geared much like ours toward the local people. But no mechanical devices, no powered floats, you have to tow, you know, drag your float on the wagon or whatever, no commercial entries whatsoever. I think if you take out the political ads, that’s half of it, and then put some restrictions on the commercial.”
Whitson’s proposal was actually a long-shot supplement to a detailed outline, in a memo he provided the committee, of how to better manager Independence Day activities in the future. Among his proposals: obtaining permission to use parking lots at the First Baptist Church, behind Publix, off State Road 100, as well as at Boston Whaler, for a combined 470 spaces. Those spaces would be free parking, but they would be for visitors who will then be willing to board shuttle buses–and pay for the transport to the island. The proposed fee would be $5 for a round trip, or $15 for unlimited trips back and forth. If the bus fee isn’t enough to cover the cot of the shuttle buses, the city would split the remaining balance between its general fund and city businesses. He also put forth a schedule of events that would kick off the day with a 5K “Freedom Run” under the bridge (at 6 a.m.), cool zones and an event information center opening at 11, “old fashioned family fun” in the par from 1 to 4 p.m., and a trash-bag hand-out on the beach from 4 to 6 p.m., for those inclined to mix community service with July 4 revelry. The fireworks still figure on Whitson’s list (but the parade did not). See the full Whitson memo here.
The city commission appointed the committee in late August to rethink July 4 as it’s been done in the city, primarily with an eye on whether to continue holding the July 4 fireworks. Several members of the committee, including the mayor, think the fireworks have become a magnet for crowds too massive and too unruly for a city the size of Flagler Beach, its narrow geography making matters even more difficult to manager. City Commission Chairman Eric Cooley has proposed shifting the fireworks show to a newly-created event on new Year’s Eve, and letting Palm Coast be the venue for the major July 4 fireworks show in the county. On the committee, Fox has been the strongest opponent of getting rid of the fireworks, saying it’s a huge boon for businesses like his restaurant. Tortugas is within spitting distance of the pier, from where the fireworks Santoro and Sons fires them off.
But even the Tourist Development Council is raising questions about whether it will be willing to pay the annual $25,000 bill for the fireworks.
Safety has been an increasing concern for city staff and Matt Doughney, the police chief, and has become an increasing concern every July 4 as crowds have become much larger. Today, the committee also got a rather lengthy memo from Bob Pickering, president of Flagler County Assist, which has provided traffic management help to Flagler Beach year after year. Pickering, who’s also been a staffer at Flagler County’s Emergency Management division for years, could provide a unique perspective on the event over time. (See the full Pickering memo here.)
Pickering loves the event, but he’s been concerned about close calls involving his volunteers, as when one was “aggressively threatened by a motorist” in 2011 or when a volunteer “was clipped by a passing car and knocked on the ground” in 2013. The event was better organized after 2014, when Doughney had been hired as police chief and Kevin Guthrie was the county’s emergency management chief (he is now the state management chief). But crowds have continued to increase. “We love the idea of the event,” Pickering concluded, “but in my personal opinion I do not want to see one of our FCA people get hurt just so a bunch of people can drink beer and watch fireworks especially in today’s climate.” He did not specify what he meant by the climate, though it could be inferred: political and ideological tempers have added fuel to the mix.
Asked by a reporter about his perspective on the event, Sheriff Rick Staly in an email said his agency has historically provided support to the Flagler Beach police at no charge, the only impact to the agency being some overtime. “There has not been any significant crime issue with the event,” he wrote, “just quality of life issues such as some minor accidents, a few calls about disorderly intoxication, marijuana smokers and the usual physical fight on the beach that seems to happen each year during the event. That is why we park our Mobile Command Center along A1A on the beach side so we can monitor and be a deterrent.”
Staly said described the matter as a city issue and decision based on the city’s costs and the event’s effects on residents’ quality of life, rather than a significant law enforcement issue–traffic and parking aside. “Of course, the more people that come, drink, etc. can always result in unwanted criminal activity and issues. Regardless if there are fireworks or not, people are still going to come” to the city on July 4, he said.
The committee meets again on Oct. 26, and generally meets every two weeks. Today was the panel’s third meeting, and the first that drew not one member of the public. It took place at 9 a.m. at City Hall. The committee’s recommendations are due to to the commission in January.