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Flagler Favors Getting Into Cottage Business in County Parks, Starting at Princess Place

| March 18, 2014

The Princess Place Preserve may have cottages soon. (© FlaglerLive)

The Princess Place Preserve may have cottages soon. (© FlaglerLive)

The Flagler County Commission on Tuesday gave its approval to a pair of proposals to build and run cottages for tourists and researchers at Princess Place and the River-to-Sea Preserve in Marineland, with an eye to expanding the cottage industry through other county parks. County Administrator Craig Coffee has been talking for several years about capitalizing on the county’s environmental assets through “nature-based tourism.”

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The twin proposals would result in three cottages at the Princess Place Preserve costing $390,000. Those would be built with a combination of grant and county dollars (all but $60,000 of the county’s contribution would be in-kind, through labor and equipment). The county would build an additional 10 cottages at the River to Sea Preserve in Marineland, shouldering most of the nearly $1 million cost through a $400,000 loan, a hoped-for $150,000 grant from the Tourist Development Council, park fees $300,000) and donations.

The three cottages at Princess Place are expected to generate $41,175 in revenue and cost the county $39,500 in operating costs. The 10 cottages at River-to-Sea would generate $189,000 in 2015, and cost $160,000 to run. In all, the county would net less than $35,000 from both operations, assuming that current cost projections are accurate, and assuming that optimistic occupancy rates of 40 to 60 percent hold up.

“I’m not going to tell you you’re going to get rich off these things,” Coffey said. “We are going to treat this like a business,” Coffey said, but he did not want to call the operation an “enterprise fund”–that is, an autonomous government fund that’s expected to break even or turn a profit, without drawing on taxpayer dollars.

“I don’t want to set up an enterprise fund that doesn’t pay for itself. I’ve seen a few of those in my time,” Commissioner Frank Meeker said, referring–without saying so–to Palm Coast’s enterprise funds set up to run the city’s golf course and tennis center, both of which have been money pits. (Meeker, however, was part of the Palm Coast City Council that set up those funds.)

“We aren’t truly setting up an enterprise fund, we’re not setting up like a tennis center or a golf club,” Coffee said.

“Well, that’s what it looks like,” Meekers aid. “I need these numbers to be wholesome because I don’t want to spend taxpayers dollars on something that’s going to lose money over the long term.”

Still, the commission gave its go-ahead. “As far as the concept goes, everyone is very enthusiastic about this,” Hanns said.

The cottages at Princess Place would primarily be used by researchers and environmental experts—the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the University of Florida’s Whitney Lab in Marineland, among others. The county can only sustain three cottages at Princess Place, based on the preserve’s current infrastructure. “You could knock out three fairly easily, doing 10 would take some time,” Coffey said.

When not being used for research, the cottages would be rented to visitors at a higher rate, to offset their cost. Over time, additional cottages would be added. The three initial sites would be available for corporate retreats and family reunions, among other uses. “The initial cottages and all future cottages will strongly represent Flagler County’s commitment to developing a strong eco-tourism base,” the proposal’s executive summary states.

“Overall, this is a drastically different approach that seeks to offer unique research opportunities and expand tourism offerings by generating county ‘non-property tax’ revenues using a basic business model,” the summary states. “This approach is scalable and has the ability to be a countywide model for other county parks, shaping how nature-based tourism recreation is created, financed, and maintained. This in turn could lead to a stronger countywide park system that offers many types of amenities, in a variety of natural settings, at a higher level than would otherwise have been available had we not pursued this paradigm shift.”

The 10 cottages at River to Sea would not be as restricted in their use. “I’m not looking to build rustic stuff, I’m looking to build highly marketable stuff,” Coffey said.

Guiding principles, inspired by the National Park Service, include a limited footprint, eco-friendly design and architecture, creating a “sense of place,” connecting with the research community and educating guests in innovative practices.

Coffey stressed that the initial projects will be testing the market for that sort of cottage, describing the approach as “putting our toes in the water, but we’re not jumping in with a gazillion units.”

Mark Martindale, who directs Whitney Laboratory in Marineland, lent his support to the project–he spoke to the commissioners through a brief phone connection–saying his operation often doesn’t have the capacity to house visiting scholars and students. River to Sea would provide “a huge opportunity for scientists such as myself to attract the great minds of the country and around the world into Marineland.”

As for unfair competition undercutting local hotels, Coffey dismissed the possibility. “Totally different experience,” Coffey said. But Commissioner Nate McLaughlin, who chairs the Tourist Development Council–half of whose membership is made up of hoteliers–worries that the idea may raise different questions there.

“To me there’s no downside,” Kurt Allen of Marineland Dolphin Adventure said, as the cottages will broaden his attraction’s appeal and reach by giving visitors a way to stay longer than a day’s visit, for example.

25 Responses for “Flagler Favors Getting Into Cottage Business in County Parks, Starting at Princess Place”

  1. Lin says:

    The county wants to make money in the park? Just put up an ice cream stand

    If this is such a great idea, why not let a private company borrow the money rather than my county?

    Look how well these arrangements have worked out for the City. Didn’t Mr Meeker and the rest of the County players learn anything from the City golf course et al ?

    Are they just looking for holes to drop our money into?

  2. Ogrethetop says:

    This is poor planning at it’s finest. What a waste of county money. all of the eagle projects gone to waste at both of these sites.

  3. Jill S. says:

    I just don’t believe it what a waste of taxpayer money. Grant money is taxpayer money, when will politicians understand this I can just see this developing into a big black hole in which taxpayer money just disappears What is it with these city and county managers who feel they always have to find things to spend and spend rather than save money, for us the taxpayer we are not a bottomless pit..

  4. Flatsflyer says:

    These crooks have to be smoking dope. I’m sure our motel / hotel businesses will support this craziness. Why on Gods Earth would anyone with an ounce of brains even think of spending tax dollars for such a foolish idea. Can’t wait to see the Tea Baggers call for the firing of the County Manager. For the price thay are spending we should get granite counters, big screen TV’s, Stainless Steel appliances. The property is cost are not included as we have already paid that.

  5. Mary Cannady says:

    Love the idea.

  6. tulip says:

    Whaaaaat is the County thinking! They bought a broken down water system, a ruin of a hospital and now they want to get into the “cottage” rental business that will make very little money, if any . and in the end, wind up costing us taxpayers a lot of money. Apparently, with the exception of Mr. Meeker, those commissioners didn’t learn anything by watching Palm Coast’s mistakes with their money pit tennis courts .

    Sensibility has gone out the window and Coffey runs the show and most of the commissioners quickly fall in line.

    The county leaders should be concerned about running Flagler County government and not being in the real estate and rental business.

  7. About Time says:

    Most of the residents of Flagler County don’t even have a clue of what Princess Place is or where it’s at, hopefully this will change that. It’s one of the most underrated and under used locations probably in Florida. If more of the county saw the gem we have out there I think they could contribute ideas or finances to further it’s development without sacrificing it’s intended purpose. I’m all for it as long as us locals don’t get “xed” out from still enjoying it. I bet Mr. McDonald is going to love this article.

  8. rick stevens says:

    I could puke reading this. Paradise lost, once again, at the hands of government. What the Hell is wrong with people? These natural wonderlands, so few relatively unspoiled and remaining, are irreplaceable and invaluable. I cannot imagine what perverse rational brings these treasured properties into the realm of commercial enterprise. Joni Mitchell said it best 40 years ago, no?

  9. Jimbo says:

    Great idea.. Have seen this same idea in Bahamas and Europe (and don’t say P.C. is not Bahamas or Europe). We have a great asset to “sell”.. Now, what is the “marketing” of this going to cost?

  10. Save the Wildlife says:

    Listen up Coffee and the rest off you.Keep your damn hands OFF of our Wetlands and Wildlife Reserves. You SOB’S are nothing but “political thieves” . I’m telling you right now…DON”T EVEN SPENT 1 DIME OF THE TAX PAYERS MONEY ON THIS BS !!

  11. About Time says:

    Almost every county in Florida with a Preserve has either camping, hiking horseback riding cottages, whatever. I can guarantee most of these Naysayers haven’t even gone out there to see Princess Place. Lets use the beautiful landscape what it’s meant for, to enjoy. Not hit little white balls into a hole all day. That’s a waste of space. By the way that “natural wonderland” was the hunting grounds for rich aristocrats would had no problem depleting natures resources for game back in the day. How many times have any of YOU dropped money in the donation box out there? There’s already a huge Island House on the property. But to let the public use THAT would ruin history and be an insurance nightmare. There’s almost 2,000 acres, we the public currently use or see maybe ten if that excluding the hiking. I could honestly say if I personally had the capital I would finance the whole thing and then some. Flagler County has a ton of examples in this state to go by if they take on this endeavor. Much success from an over twenty five year resident.

  12. confidential says:

    Since when we county government get our tax dollars to invest in the lodging business opening cottages and unfairly competing with the local small hotels? Is this what the 3 percent or more now bed tax, paid to local hoteliers and forced passed to the county Tourism Development Council (TDC) will be used for? Use that local collected tourist bed tax to compete against the very hotels that collect them? Since when our tax dollars are supposed to be invested in for profit lodging operations? Same as school taxes in the past were used to buy real estate from ITT (the Corporate Building) now claiming to need several millions to be repaired. When enough will be enough of misusing our hard earned and always dwindling taxes given the high unemployment, to be wasted to benefit the very few? Our taxes for vacationers cottages..? while Medicaid and food stamps are rejected for the population of thousands of unemployed given the greedy corporation that have taken our jobs overseas to benefit from slave wages? Cottages for tourist wit our taxes when we have in our surrounding woods thousands of homeless living in makeshift tents camps or their cars? Midterms elections come and we better vote all these gutless oligarchs and their feudal administrators out!

  13. Dennis McDonald says:

    Mr. Coffey County Administrator turned real estate investor [with our money] is proposing a 2015 balance sheet that nets $35,000 on a $950,000 investment of OUR MONEY. This senario is optimum at best and has NO track record except for Coffey’s reference to the National Park system ? Now there is a proven profit model ! Regardless of whether it’s a grant, loan, fees WE the Taxpayers pay for it when it fails and it will
    This time when it fails the County Taxpayers will eat it like We had to swallow hard on Landon’s golf and tennis Folly, to the tune of multi millions for construction and operating losses. Remember that former City Councilman Meeker was a big proponent and backer even when the City was losing hundreds of thousands in operating expense, never paid back a dime on the construction loans, and yet he votes for this !
    . Next we have a County Commissioner McLaughlin that championed not letting us vote on the Small County Sales Tax 10/2012 and Voted it in for us, what a guy ! From an accounting standpoint McLaughlin is a proven Debit.
    County Administrator Coffey provides us an inside look by this very shortsighted proposal that he is NOT capable of building the new jail or Sheriffs headquarters. We are headed to another train wreck like the Courthouse/Green Dome projects from not even 10 years ago !
    As a final reminder Revels, McLaughlin, Meeker, Hanns voted to spend our tax $$ on the old hospital for $1,230,000 when we owned usable land across the street. Then they gave us a THIRTEEN percent increase in our Taxes this year. November 4th can’t come fast enough.

    Dennis McDonald

  14. Genie says:

    Why are we spending money on Marineland when they are now owned by an Atlanta Corporation? Didn’t Holland do this when she gave a big pot of our tax money to them?

    God save us from Flagler County politicians and administrators.

  15. Rob says:

    Of course the county commissioners would favor this ill-advised foray.
    It greases the wheels of their donors who are also in the construction business.

    If this is such a slamming and great proposition let one of these private investors in the county use their money and let the county impose a fee.

    Let Mr. Chimento step up and make the investment. He seems to have the inside track with the county and the city. I may have the scenario backwards, Mr Chimento gets paid by the county, he does not pay.

    • Genie says:

      @ Rob: Per your comment,

      “Let Mr. Chimento step up and make the investment. He seems to have the inside track with the county and the city. I may have the scenario backwards, Mr Chimento gets paid by the county, he does not pay.”

      I think the majority of County residents would agree with this statement. What Mr. Chuiment wants, Mr. Chuimento gets. I particularly like the way he states at public hearings that “he represents the client” when he IS the client.

  16. confidential says:

    Since when the county is supposed to get into the hospitality business with our always dwindling taxpayers funds in order to take business away in unfair competition from the little and no so hotels that collect the bed tax for the TDC (Tourism Development Council)?
    To afford Medicaid, food stamps, a shelter for the homeless residing in the woods among us, help to the local animal rescue organizations, a staffed site for children and or victims of domestic abuse or rape etc. is not possible but these luxuries yes?
    When are we going to have a say about the way our taxes are wasted? Maybe finally by the midterm elections in November?

  17. Anonymous says:

    I am out at Princess Place PRESERVE everyday, of course it is a beautiful place but it also holds a lot of history in Flagler county. The lodge at in the preserve is the longest standing building in flagler county, the eagle couple has been there for a documented 32 years, The land history goes all the way bam until the 1700’s. Princess Place is not a retreat, it is a place you can visit daily. I have taken the tour given by the students that attend the historic school house. Considering how much the students value the privledge of going out there everyday in the service learning program they are a part of will show you how the preserve should should be treated. I do not agree with this proposal, it makes me wonder who let this happen an if they have ever even been to the preserve.

  18. confidential says:

    A federal investigation should be called and all elected officials an their administrators county and city government and their personal individual bank accounts and transactions should be extensible audited in detail on each of these pathetic real estate, utilities and city hall projects after openly opposed even in referendum.
    Our taxes are being wasted for the last past 15 years at least by benefitting elite with the taxpayers open opposition.

  19. Genie says:

    This is a critical federal habitat area, I believe. How is it that the county can just waltz in and disrupt this and the ordinary citizen cannot? I am curious. And I don’t think we need to be building here, ANYTHING.

  20. Anonymous says:

    WOW the river to sea preserve WAS a camp ground before the county took it over. It had camp sites for RVs and tent sites along with a general store swimming pool and other amenity’s. But when the county took it over they all went away. That could have really made some $$ for the Country. BUT ne so now they want to spend close to 1.5MILLION to get MAYBE 35K a year what IDIOTS we put in place.

  21. ryan says:

    Until journalists are willing to break confidentiality agreements regarding behind closed door talks that involve our tax dollars, and other forms of exposure that humiliates local politicians involving personally pocketing “redevelopment” funds, we will not know what is really going on. This is what I like to call a real hit on the environment, not CO2. I consider dumping dangerous chemicals in lakes, streams, and rivers as well as draining swampland and other nature preserves for construction purposes is where the real environmental damage is done.

    • FlaglerLive says:

      Ryan: FlaglerLive is very willing to “break” those confidentiality agreement if we can get our hands on them. We do not consider them proper, necessary or in the public interest. Quite the contrary. As Enterprise Florida shows us, the system breeds corruption. But government agencies guard them closely. In this case, confidentiality agreements do not apply. This is ostensibly a public deal.

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