It’s no mystery to anyone familiar with the island: parking spaces in Flagler Beach are an endangered species. A city analysis found well short of 2,000 spots citywide–862 north of State Road 100, just shy of 1,000 south of 100. But that was before the reconstruction of the south end of A1A eliminated a slew of those spots.
City Manager William Whitson submitted the rough analysis to the July 4 Committee on Tuesday as part of the panel’s continuing efforts to get better control–first with information, then with recommendations to the City Commission–of Independence Day traffic and visitor impacts on city residents and businesses.
Some members of the commission, the administration and the committee, including Mayor Suzie Johnston, Whitson, City Police Chief Matt Doughney, Commission Chairman Eric Cooley and Committee Chairman Scott Spradley, the local attorney, to one extent or another are concerned about how much July 4 may have become an event difficult to control or accommodate.
The event keeps attracting larger crowds, perhaps rowdier crowds: an assessment of traffic patterns by the head of a volunteer organization that has been regulating traffic on July 4 for 26 years raised alarms in an Oct. 11 memo to the committee. Especially in the last 10 years, he wrote, “some of our long time volunteers have expressed concerns over their personal safety.”
Larger crowds keep pouring in. The city’s geography is unchanged. If anything, it is physically shrinking along its littoral, with more than polemical consequences: the shrinkage led to the reconstruction of A1A, and the elimination of a slew of parking spaces. That trend is only going one way, toward more shrinkage. So city and committee officials consider the combination of a parade, day-long festivities and 9 p.m. fireworks on July 4, in addition to peripheral events like First Friday and holiday beach bacchanals, an unsustainable formula as currently configured.
The committee’s job is to submit recommendations to the City Commission by January 22–what would amount to a new formula. The committee is still searching for its Euclid.
Parking is a key factor. Whitson’s memo broke down the known number of the city’s existing parking spaces–1,850–into its three categories. Only 35 percent of those spots are the on-street variety: the spots along the shore, along sidewalks, in the cobblestoned downtown district. The rest is off-street public or private, and there’s some vagueness as to what off-street private may mean beyond church and school parking lots.
“We do need to go back in and do some more analysis,” City Manager William Whitson said. “This is a high level item here.” He said the numbers are–ironically for parking– “always a moving target,” with definitions of off-street parking and would be.
“It doesn’t matter how many spaces that we determine are there. There’s still a huge problem,” Spradley said. “That number will be supportive of whatever we wind up recommending to the commission. This is how many spaces we have, these are the number of people that we’re going to have to accommodate.”
The city doesn’t have a verified count of the number of people who visit on July 4, morning to night. The figure often cited by city officials is 50,000, but it’s anecdotal. “That was a number that came from Larry Newsome,” Mayor Suzie Johnston, a non-voting member of the committee, said.
The city could easily know an exact count of vehicles by placing traffic counters at its three entrances–on the bridge and at the two ends of State Road A1A–a proposal Johnston put forth. The counters could also be maintained for the weekends before and after Independence Day for comparison. Some traffic counters are already in place.
Whitson, in preparation for a separate commission item, is currently analyzing traffic counts by the pier, the restaurants and the beach as an economic indicator. In 2020, the count was 15,800 cars a day. That was during the pandemic–7,800 southbound. (“Half of those trips back and forth across the bridge are my wife saying oh, wait, did you get carrots? I’m back over. Oh, wait, did you get corn at Publix? Five times a day?,” one of the committee members said. The identity of the committee member is being withheld for his protection.)
Parking is one component of the July 4. Shuttle buses are another. Those shuttle buses for three years were subsidized by the city, giving free rides to visitors and picking up from the Babcock parking lot on the mainland side of the bridge. That’s over: riders will have to pay from now on. The Babcock lot is also too small for the demand. Whitson has been working on securing agreements with First Baptist Church and Boston Whaler to use their lots as shuttle terminals during festivities. Boston Whaler “is all in,” Whitson said, with some legalities still to be cleared. The church is almost ready to sign on, with some issues Whitson wants to work out yet. (One committee member raised the possibility of a water taxi, a natural fit at the Boston Whaler facility.)
The committee members are also intrigued in following in the footsteps of the Creekside Festival, which this year retained a Jacksonville company to run the parking during the two-day event.
The origin of the July 4 committee was an explosive proposal, put forth by Cooley: should the Independence Day fireworks continue? Cooley had proposed letting Palm Coast take over the fireworks entirely, and shifting Flagler Beach’s fireworks to New Year’s Eve. Flagler Beach residents–and the commission–are looking to the committee’s recommendation on that proposal. The committee has discussed it, and several members support ending the fireworks, but some don’t. So far it’s been–as expected–the most controversial issue for the committee. The only controversial issue. The committee seemed not eager to take on the question Tuesday, focusing on parking and the sort of “small town county fair kind of feel” of the day’s events, other than the fireworks.
Johnston, who has supported eliminating the fireworks, spoke as if that wasn’t going to happen–at least not this year. “We have fireworks and parking is limited: and that’s how we push this event,” she said, highlighting the way the event should be publicized on the city’s website. “Because the event is going to happen. We are already going to be at maximum capacity with everything we have. It needs to be: come enjoy Fourth of July. Keep in mind, the beach has limited parking, use the shuttle, walk here, rideshare–everything. That needs to be front and center. So when people look at our events, they’re like okay, it’s going to be hard to find a spot, and we need to drill that in.”