The parcel of land the Flagler County tourism bureau was eying for its future “Visitor Experience Center,” and that proved controversial because of its $1.5 million sticker price, is no longer available.
The parcel is at South 9th Street and State Road A1A. The tourism bureau’s Amy Lukasik presented it to the Tourist Development Council as a choice, community-based location that would capture foot and auto traffic coming into Flagler Beach, the heart of the county’s tourism experience. But both cost and location immediately drew criticism, especially from Flagler Beach Commissioner Eric Cooley, who said it did not match up with the tourism council’s strategic plan. Cooley had worked on the strategic plan when he served on the council as his city’s liaison. Those issues are now moot.
The county had the parcel appraised by two independent appraisers, as it must–by law–when considering a land purchase. By law, it may not pay more than the average of the two appraisals. That average was $727,500, Lukasik told the Tourist Development Council earlier this week. “Everyone thinks we’re paying 1.5, but in reality if we were interested in moving forward, it would be $727,500. So a big difference there,” Lukasik said. “However, in the meantime, last week also the seller got an offer that is much higher than 727,500. So the seller will be moving forward with that offer.” The land is owned by an affiliate or subsidiary of Coastal Cloud, the tech company based in the Hammock.
That brings back discussions about a future visitor center “being closer here to the core” of downtown Flagler Beach, Lukasik said. “That is our ultimate goal too, is to be as close to the hotel as possible.” A 100-room hotel is planned for the parcel adjacent to Veterans Park, where the farmer’s market used to be–and where the city’s largest hotel used to be for half a century, until the early 1970s. (See: “Plan for 100-Room Hotel in Flagler Beach Is Revealed, Drawing City’s Approval and Concerns Over Parking and Beach Use.”)
Lukasik said she has started working with Flagler Beach city officials to that end, after being all but publicly upbraided by City Manager William Whitson at a March meeting of the city commission for not including him in such discussions.
“I have said from the very beginning that the TDC belongs in Flagler Beach. We are the destination, we’re the diamond in the crown,” Whitson said at the time. “I would be more than delighted to sit down with the county and work out some details. But that’s what we’re talking about, is they have a grand vision, and we support it. But the island itself is limited, the space is limited. And guess whose office oversees all of the development in the city? I’m the person that you need to sit down with. With all due respect to that, with your permission,” he said, referring to city commissioners, “”to work out the details. And I am in total support, if of course you are, of locating the TDC here, I’ve always said that. What’s lacking is the communication on the details that need to happen to make this vision come about.”
Whitson’s and commissioners’ seconding the approach had its effect.
“And so we have started working with them,” Lukasik said at this week’s TDC meeting. “They have assembled a team so that everyone can put their heads together to find the best path forward. And so that’s kind of where we’re at now.” The tourism office has also been short-listed for a grant through the scenic byways program, which, if successful, could help with the funding of the new visitors’ center. ” So hopefully all those stars will align for us in a timely manner and if we have to call a special meeting to move forward due to deadlines or whatever we will do so.”
The tourism office hasn’t stopped looking for other options. Lukasik is still intent on having it in Flagler Beach, preferably on or near A1A, though the county has land available, at no cost, on State Road 100, near Flagler Beach.
“We need a community based Visitor Center. The ones that are kind of just off the highways, they’re not as successful for that reason,” Lukasik said, giving the New Smyrna Beach tourism office as an example. “They’re right off the interstate and no one knows they’re there and they don’t see the traffic.” The idea is to have a center that does a lot more than tell people where things are, whether it’s selling tickets to events, partnering with local restaurants for hands-on experiences, rent paddle boats and bikes, and so on.
One of the possibility she would favor is none other than Flagler Beach City Hall. “She had said her ideal location is actually City Hall,” Flagler Beach Mayor Suzie Johnston said at the March meeting. ” Across the way it’s $6 million now for half a lot. So who has any idea of what this is worth? But I would just hate to see visitors’ money being spent on something that’s not even an ideal location.” She was referring to the South 9th Street location, still in play at the time.
“The last time we talked about vacating this building, we had world war three,” Commissioner Jane Mealy said.
“Things have changed and times are moving fast. And it may be a consideration. It could be a valuable piece of property where we can bring all of our staff and everyone under one building,” Ken Bryan said, referring to the “whole new leadership team here.”
“I didn’t mean that I was opposed,” Mealy clarified.
Lukasik echoed the approach, especially with the coming hotel. “We would like to complement each other if we’re close together with the hotel, whether it’s aesthetically or we kind of are like brother and sister, it’s more cohesive that way, and that fits into the community.”
If the city was able or willing to sell City Hall, it would likely move to the Wickline Center campus, where all city offices would be consolidated. Failing that, the tourism bureau remains on the hunt for another parcel in Flagler Beach, and now with memories of two recent setbacks: the one on 9th Street, and before that, its attempt to get the old Bank of America building downtown. (See: “Despite Building Fiascos, County Now Wants ‘Due Diligence’ On Buying Old $1 Million Bank of America in Flagler Beach.”)
There’s also what Cooley described as “some of my heartburn” over a visitor center.
“A lot of folks thought that that was a lot of money, and I tend to agree with them,” he said, back when the 9th Street parcel was still listed for $1.5 million, and before the appraisals. “So who pays for it? The tourists pay for it, through the bed tax, right? Who pays for the tourists? We do. We get stuck with the bill. We have to clean up after them, we have to do all the repairs and all the wear and tear. Eighty percent of the people that come here come to Flagler Beach and only for Flagler Beach, Four out of five people do it by driving. We as a city have to carry all of these costs that we’re not getting anything back from the county.”
“All the money that is spent on a tourism center,” Cooley said, “that’s money that can also go to Flagler Beach and it’s not going to. It’s going to go to driving more people to Flagler Beach that we’re still going to pay for. And this was covered in the strategic plan.” He added: “If we build a very, very expensive tourist destination center, that is all money that could and should go for capital projects. ” The lot was “not big enough to do what you say,” he had told Lukasik. “You want to put a museum in there, your offices, a tourism center, a shuttle service, and a gift shop, which by the way is direct competition to a bunch of businesses. It’s noted in there, you want to use it to generate revenue.” Lukasik said local gift shop merchandise would be used, if local gift shops want to put their wares there.
Cooley went back to the strategic plan he’d helped draft. “The original vision when we wrote the strategic plan is, the tourism center-experience center was going to be ‘One sensational facility,’ it was going to be a destination in itself. It was going to hold meeting space, possibly large enough to be convention center style,” have large gardens, focus on ecotourism and possibly address the shortage of the county’s athletic fields. The current version of the “community-based” center is a good vision, he said, but placing it on State Road 100 would make more sense, giving it the land it needs and the potential to become the destination the strategic plan intended it to be.