The Coalition of Flagler Cities held its inaugural meeting Friday afternoon under the banner of unity but in a mood of somewhat frustrated opposition to the county’s broader—if fraying—economic development initiatives. But despite its best intentions, some of the same factors that made it difficult for the county’s various interests to find substantial clarity on aims and means emerged in the coalition’s first meeting.
- Economic Development Summit Cancelled Again as “Coalition of Cities” Revs Up
- Bunnell and Flagler Beach Angrily Denounce Enterprise Flagler’s Secretive “Done Deal”
- Flagler’s Economic Development Plans In the Air as County-Wide Summit Is Cancelled
- In Day of No-Shows, Latest Economic Summit Slouches Toward Enterprise Flagler
The same words—and many of the same bromides—that animated the nearly half-dozen county-wide economic development summits since January animated the coalition’s first meeting: unity is important. There are no borders when it comes to unemployment. Constituents come first. In the words of Bunnell City Manager Armando Martinez, who originated the idea of the coalition, “Palm Coast isn’t the bad guy, the county isn’t the bad guy, everybody is the good guy.”
So why were these guys here?
The answer wasn’t clear after the inaugural meeting, even after participants asked the question in various ways. Bunnell, Flagler Beach, Beverly Beach and Marineland were all represented around the table Friday, in the cramped conference room of Bunnell’s community development department. Palm Coast declined an open invitation. Curiously, while Flagler Beach had four representatives around the table, three of them elected—Mayor Alice Baker, commissioners Jane Mealy and Marshall Shupe, and acting city manager Bruce Campbell—Bunnell had just one: Martinez (one with a voice at the table, anyway; two city staffers were also present.)
“I’m still hung up on this—what’s our purpose,” Campbell said. The county-wide summit and its aftermath produced a lot of bad things, but a lot of good things came of it too, Campbell said. “I didn’t know better it’s like this group is going to take on the rest of the county and say we don’t like this plan,” he said, suggesting that that would be premature when the county’s plan itself has yet to be clarified.
So Flagler Beach appeared to have a clearer idea of what the coalition was not about than what it was about. Flagler Beach is not willing to turn the coalition into an instrument against the county’s broader efforts, or even an instrument that would parallel the county’s on a separate track. Flagler Beach’s interest is to remain involved at the decision-making level, wherever those decisions that affect all county residents are being made. Bunnell’s is, too, though Martinez’s coalition-passion appears to be driving the city’s train more than any clear idea of where that train ought to be going. Martinez was a marginal voice at the various countywide summits. In the coalition, he sat at the head of the table and dominated discussion.
The coalition is Martinez’s brainchild. He reacted publicly and angrily to a proposal by Enterprise Flagler last month to restructure that public-private economic development partnership by cutting its board in half and reducing governments’ representation to Palm Coast and the county, seemingly excluding Flagler Beach and Bunnell. Martinez proposed creating the coalition in response. His commission and Flagler Beach’s went along.
But one of the Enterprise Flagler proposals has since been amended to include Bunnell and Flagler Beach at the table, ostensibly making the coalition unnecessary. Martinez’s public outcry against Enterprise Flagler’s move, however, gave his coalition momentum even after that coalition was made to seem superfluous. But Martinez was also crediting the coalition for forcing the issue at Enterprise Flagler. That may well be the case, although it does not resolve the larger issue: the county is more divided today than it was six months ago when its serial summits began, with the coalition underscoring the frayed political landscape behind facades of unity. And the county is not much more advanced on an economic development strategy. Summit participants have developed five general goals, but with diminishing buy-in and still no money to enact the plans or an agreed-upon structure through which those plans would be enacted. The Coalition of Cities is even less prepared to enable either.
“The coalition’s position now is to wait and see where the dust settles,” Martinez said. That’s pretty much where all participants are in the process, whatever their allegiance.
The coalition’s first two motions were to install Martinez and Mealy as the group’s chair and vice-chair. The third was to adopt the group’s letterhead. The floor was then turned over to John Walsh, publisher of the Palm Coast Observer, who’d been invited to make a presentation on his notion of economic development—as a courtesy rather than as any indication that the coalition was endorsing anything. Walsh, who summed up the current state of economic development talk as “frustration, frustration, frustration.”
“The summit is feverishly racing to the cliff,” Walsh said. (The summit’s next installment has been cancelled twice, so far.) Walsh then described a governing structure that would be headed by the county and tailored after that of the Tourist Development Council, a powerful advisory board made up of representatives from local governments (minus Bunnell, ironically) and private, hospitality industry representatives. But the TDC manages $1.3 million in annual revenue from the county’s dedicated 4% bed tax on hotel, motel, RV and other temporary-dwelling spending in the county. In other words it has money to do something with.
Walsh is proposing that the county use a portion of $622,500 currently proposed for economic development in the county’s 2011-12 budget to pay for two positions that would lead the economic development effort from the administrative end. (Enterprise Flagler currently has two or three positions, depending how they’re counted.) His presentation over, Walsh left, returning the group to deliberations over its identity—and monthly meetings.
Baker, the Flagler Beach mayor who’s also a member of the Flagler League of Cities, headed by Palm Coast Mayor Jon nets, wasn’t sure what had been accomplished Friday. And as Martinez conceded that the coalition’s place at the larger table may have been secured, he said that matters remained cloudy, and that the coalition will stay in place just in case: if the larger effort is derailed, the coalition will be ready to “leave the station.” Destinations remain as elusive as ever, however.
A particularly severe thunderstorm storm raged outside during the meeting, flickering the lights inside. The storm had mostly blown over by meeting’s end.