The chairman of the Flagler Beach City Commission and the chairman of the county’s tourism council, who also sits on the County Commission, both have questions about the location and the cost of building a potential visitor center the county’s tourism division is eying for South 9th Street and State Road A1A in Flagler Beach.
When Flagler County tourism director Amy Lukasik updated the County Commission on the division’s goals–or strategic plan–last Monday, she referred to the need for a visitors’ center, specified that it should be on the south side of Flagler Beach and that time was running short for finding a location.
Lukasik had made a similar presentation to the Tourist Development Council late last month, with one difference: she’d showed images of the property whose owners the county administration was negotiating with, a 0.37-acre lot at the corner of South 9th Street and State Road A1A in Flagler Beach. She’d won the tourism board’s consensus to, in her words, “move forward with our due diligence of getting those appraisals and executing the option agreement to protect them and us.” The listed price of the lot, $1.5 million, owned by Coastal Cloud Properties LLC, was not mentioned to the TDC board.
Tim hale, an owner of the property, said it has been on the market for a few months. “The TDC offer is well below the current listing price,” he said. (“The purchase price of wherever we land, we’re bound by statute,” Lukasik said. “And so whatever a listing price is does not mean that’s what we pay we pay. We pay the average of two appraisals.” Whatever the terms of a purchase, local, general fund dollars would not be used.)
The property was not mentioned to the County Commission on Monday because the matter is not yet ready for discussion there, Commissioner Dave Sullivan, who chairs the TDC board, said. He said the listed price is too high for the county, and there are questions about the location of the visitors’ center. Sullivan himself, for example, would prefer the center to be located closer to the center of town. He mentioned the possibility of Flagler Beach City Hall moving to the Wickline Center campus at 800 Sough Daytona Avenue and putting the City Hall location up for sale, creating an opportunity for the county.
“We’re hanging fire,” Sullivan said of the property on South 9th. “There are better places in Flagler Beach than that lot, but I think she did mention that we’re running out of possibilities even in Flagler Beach.”
Monday’s County Commission agenda was already full, he said, so starting a discussion about the property acquisition was delayed. “It just didn’t seem the exact right time to bring it forward,” he said. Since the presentation to the TDC board, the proposal has caused further discussions and reactions, with Sullivan himself hearing about possibilities of perhaps locating the visitors’ center on State Road 100 rather than on A1A, whether near Colbert Lane or near the bike and foot bridge now under construction, itself “a symbol of the county and the beach,” as Sullivan described it. “All those are being considered but right now if you look at all factors involved if we could get a good location on A1A, where the tourists are, that seems to be best.”
To Flagler Beach Commission Chairman Eric Cooley, who has also served on the TDC, both the acquisition of the land on South 9th and locating a visitors’ center there makes no sense. “Flagler County already owns a huge parcel of land on the south side of 100 that tourism can utilize for free,” Cooley said of an 82-acre site with long frontage on 100, just east of Old Kings Road. “It is ideal for this use. I was one of the folks who sat on the TDC for many years and contributed to this specific strategic plan driving the concept of a interactive tourism center for the entire county–not just Flagler Beach.”
Cooley said the State Road 100 location would capture 75 to 90 percent of traffic going into Flagler Beach. Of the the A1A location for a center, he said: “I am not stating that is wrong, but it makes no sense to me from a logistic standpoint. Being fiscally responsible with tax dollars regardless of source is paramount. The first proposed location (direct oceanfront A1a) is an at-risk location, undersized, out of the way, and overpriced. Intercepting incoming traffic and maximization of tax dollars should be top priorities and this location should be undergoing the same consideration as the oceanfront property. This would also save tax funds to invest in needed tourist-driven capital improvements in the destination itself, because that will drive tourists to the area over a visitor center.”
“There’s a basic feeling–why are you going to put the the visitor center in Flagler Beach,” Sullivan conceded. But “the argument for a visitor center near the beach makes a lot of sense.” It would be both visitor center and tourism division headquarters. The tourism bureau is currently renting space from a building at the county airport.
Addressing the commission on Monday, Lukasik said the tourism division has identified a grant that would help with construction. “The Experience Center will be all encompassing of Flagler County no matter where it is,” Lukasik said. “You will walk in and be able to get a total feel of the entire county and everything that we offer.” It would offer such things as “food-walking tours,” working with local restaurants to enable the visitor to meet at the visitor center, pay for the ticket (part of the revenue would go to the tourism bureau), and be guided through their food experience.
“We will never have huge attractions. We don’t want that, we don’t want the boardwalk with all the carni[val] rides and games. We want packages and experiences that match the DNA of our community,” Lukasik said. Along those lines, she said the visitor center “should be where the visitors already are.” In her thinking, “it makes no sense for us to be off I-95. “People already know where they’re going. If they’re visitors, they’re likely going east, so while we wouldn’t want to ask them to stop. We want to be where they’re already going. So it’s very important that we keep it as logistically easy for them.” That means the south side of Flagler Beach, she said. “There’s also a lot of organic foot traffic that’s happening throughout the business district down there and we need to be able to capture as much of that as possible to be successful.”
Bunnell and West Side residents may see it differently, especially as both those sectors have been trying to position themselves for more tourism possibilities, whether through the county’s ecotourism, its agricultural base or its history. And foot traffic as far south as 9th Street, however, is light but for existing residents.
While Lukasik never mentioned the South 9th location to commissioners, she repeated the cautions she spoke to the TDC board, with obvious allusions to the location. “When we talked about the importance of the location, land is quickly diminishing and what is left, the prices are continuing to rise,” she said. “So we are looking to move quickly on this but not without all the proper due diligence because we want to be successful.” She added: “When we find one that we feel meets our criteria and that we are confident that we will be successful, the next step is we take it before the TDC for approval and discussion. And then if it’s recommended by the TDC, we bring it before the BOCC,” the acronym for Board of County Commissioners.
In a reference to a series of real estate transactions that soured over the past decade or so for the county, Cooley noted: “The county and tourism need to pick sites conservatively and be cautious on overspending as has been witnessed with other projects.”