For the July 4 committee the Flagler Beach City Commission appointed to study whether to continue the tradition of Independence Day fireworks off the pier, the question is no longer whether to continue it. That’s now been settled in favor of fireworks. The question is how to manage the tradition in coming years as a crush of visitors continues to test the city’s capacity to accommodate them.
That means Palm Coast will not be the only July 4 fireworks show any time in the near future. It means the most controversial part of the committee’s work, whose report will be submitted to the City Commission on Jan. 13, is settled. It also happens to mean, based on City Manager William Whitson’s assessment, that New Year’s Eve fireworks, which Commission Chairman Eric Cooley had proposed as a replacement for July 4 fireworks, will not be happening this year.
“The fireworks is the tradition that’s been ‘message sent-received,’” Whitson said this morning after the conclusion of the July 4 committee’s latest meeting. “As far as how it gets done, yeah, we’re going to have some challenges to work through in future years. But the fact that we would do it or not, I think the overwhelming sentiment is, let’s proceed. So we put together a plan for ‘22. We’re going to have challenges in ‘23 and beyond. So we’re just going to have to adjust, and how we do that, the jury is still out on that.”
The committee discussed the fate of fireworks at length only at its first meeting, less so at its second, when talk shifted to making businesses pay for the fireworks, and hardly at all in the last three, when discussions shifted to improving the mechanics and coordination of Independence Day events. The committee at no point made an explicit decision to recommend sticking with fireworks. But the discussions clearly indicated that it had implicitly embraced the idea, if with better management.
Scott Spradley, the Flagler Beach attorney and chairman of the committee–he’d originated the idea of a study committee–is a bellwether of the committee. He’d been on the fence about the fireworks, with some of the six-person committee members favoring ending the tradition and some wanting to continue it, at least at first.
“The way that these meetings have evolved, we’ve gone from do we want to have fireworks to–alright, how do we accommodate the fireworks?” Spradley said. “What do we do to accommodate that? That’s been a shift. There’s a way to do it. I know on the front end, when the issue first came up, it was like well, the logistics and the other concerns are such that perhaps we shouldn’t have fireworks but now I think the sentiment is–alright, we’ve got fireworks, let’s figure it out. It looks like it’s the logistics and concerns that everyone has that they’re managing.” He added: “We haven’t voted on anything but I’m just commenting on what I am seeing.”
Spradley will submit a brief, interim committee report to the City Commission at the commission’s Nov. 18 meeting, with a final report to be submitted on Jan. 13. “I will make a point to say that we’re talking about what needs to happen in order to continue to have fireworks, and it’s looking positive that we can have all these things,” Spradley said. The committee’s recommendations are just that. They’re not binding on the commission. Nevertheless, the commission is not likely to diverge too far from its committee’s recommendations, having appointed it to have a way to put at least some distance between itself and what would be a difficult decision either way.
Mayor Suzie Johnston, a non-voting member of the July 4 committee, summed up the panel’s work so far this way: It has found 470 parking spots, there will be fee-based shuttles from mainland to the island, under cover cops will patrol the “family friendly zone,” in other words the beach area parallel by the boardwalk on either side of the pier, to sniff out underage drinking, the once-interminable July 4 parade will be capped, possibly at 50 entrants, like the Christmas parade, there’ll be Lyft and Uber drop off stations, Mothers Against Drunk Driving will be sought out to help in the mayor’s campaign against under-age drinking–and there will be fireworks. “We’re really trying to send a good positive message at this point,” Johnston said.
The challenges Whitson and Spradley were referring to are threefold: the pier is expected to be rebuilt as a concrete structure in an extensive, multi-year project that won’t end until 2026. That means no fireworks off the pier from 2023 to 2025.
A company in July bought the long-vacant land next to Veterans Park for $3.8 million and is expected to start building a hotel there in the first quarter of 2022, Whitson said. That means fewer parking spots there, in addition to the eliminated parking spigots along South A1A. (Manoj Bhoola, owner of Ormond Beach-based Elite Hospitality and the named agent of the company that acquired the land, includes Hampton Inn, Hilton Garden Inn, Best Western and Margaritaville Beach Hotel in its management portfolio.)
Finally, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ dune-rebuilding project, already delayed a year, may get under way next year. It won’t take more than a few months, but it could potentially overlap with July 4, and make vast beach areas south of the pier inaccessible.
But with the almost certain addition of parking at Boston Whaler’s plant and First Baptist Church plus the shuttle service, parking should be less of a challenge.
Pier construction will not mean an end to fireworks for those three years. “Just because we don’t have the pier after 2023 doesn’t mean we can’t do the fireworks, it just means it will be done in a different way, and people might not gather as they normally do in the same areas,” Whitson said.
The July 4 committee started strong with full attendance from all its voting and non-voting members–Johnston, residents Rick Bowen, Carla Cline, Scott Fox, Butch Naylor, and Spradley, County Tourism Director Amy Lukasik, City Police Chief Matt Doughney and Whitson. The committee has also drawn considerable public attention, July 4 being Flagler Beach’s most defining event of the year. But over the five successive meetings attendance has gotten spottier (it strained to get a quorum this morning), perhaps because the committee has effectively settled the overriding issue and otherwise outlined the blueprint for running the event, leaving it to city staff to “fill in” with more detail, as Whitson sees it.
“Everyone seems to be interested on social media about this but no one shows up here,” Spradley said of morning meetings that at first drew a handful of residents in the audience, but no longer. “We have a lot of social media warriors out there and if they want to show up here and participate, that would be awesome.”