Update: On Sept. 11, the Flagler Beach City Commission dropped the push to change the name, and on Sept. 15, the County Commission reversed its support for the name change. The story here.
The Flagler County Commission gave its unanimous support to Flagler Beach’s effort to revert the name of Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area to its former name: Flagler Beach State Recreation Area. The change would in effect kill Gamble Rogers a second time, but city officials and business concerns serving on the city’s Economic Development Task Force say “rebranding” the park would spur more tourist activity favorable to the city. The city has never taken to the more recent name, either by associating cultural events with its legacy or attempting to broaden awareness about the late folk singer.
Gamble Rogers was Florida’s folk-singing equivalent of Zora Neale Hurston, his lyrics and rhythms hewed to the state’s old traditions, his famed monologues packing the power of a tent revivalist, and his songs excoriating the hucksters that were in his eyes demolishing the state. Notions of “branding” the state recreation area would have likely triggered his humor and imagination, but probably none too kindly. He died on Oct. 10, 1992, when he was camping at the recreation area with his wife Nancy, and he heard a swimmer in distress—Raymond Tracey of Ontario. He swam out in an inflatable mattress. The surf was rough. Neither he nor Tracey made it back alive. He was 54. Tracey was 48.
Four months later the Florida Senate voted unanimously to rename the 145-acre park the Gamble Rogers Memorial Recreation Area at Flagler Beach, “satisfying,” in the words of a St. Petersburg Times writer at the time, “those who revere Rogers’ memory and those concerned about maintaining the historical name.” The renaming, Jan Glifdewell wrote in February 1992, was the culmination of efforts not just to mark the memory of Rogers after the drowning. “Friends and fans of the late Gamble Rogers,” he wrote, had been “searching for suitable memorials to the former member of the Serendipity Singers who became one of Florida’s best-known folk singers and storytellers.”
Just 22 years later, the city would like to put its stamp back on the area, and relegate Rogers to his small stony monument plaque at the park, which most Flagler Beach residents don’t even know is there. The city thinks it has the support of Rep. Travis Hutson, but not that of Sen. John Thrasher. Both would be necessary as the name change can only happen if both chambers of the Legislature approve. And even Hutson will have to contend with opposition in St. Johns County to the renaming, an effort the St. Augustine Record last November termed “cold” and “crass.”
In fact, Hutson said through a spokeswoman Thursday morning that “he never committed to changing that name” and that Flagler Beach officials may have misunderstood his intentions. Jennifer Lubi, Hutson’s spokeswoman, said that the representative suggested to supporters of the name change to rally every local community in its favor and prove that there is unanimity behind the local effort. If that unanimity exists, then the city can bring the proposal to the annual meeting of the legislative delegation in Bunnell, ahead of the next legislative session, and propose it as a measure for the Legislature to take up.
“But there’s no commitment of running legislation for this after further research,” Lubi said of Hutson. “He didn’t tell anybody he would do it.” And Lubi confirmed that the opposition in St. Johns is very stiff, if not unanimously against the change.
The Flagler Beach City Commission last year voted to work toward a name change, and has been seeking the county’s support since. The city claims that the lengthy name currently often omits Flagler Beach from visibility, and that the change would “create more of a draw for residents and visitors alike.” The recreation area, however, has not had trouble filling its 30 full-service camping spots: Not only is September fully booked. It appears that no spots are available through next July, suggesting a loyal following that does benefit the city to its north.
“For any of you on the fence,” Kim Carney, who chairs the Flagler Beach City Commission, told c county commissioners in a meeting this afternoon, “I’ve been a representative on the economic development task force for almost six years. This is an approved goal by the city of Flagler Beach. We have a resolution that we want this to be done.” She said the reversion is due. “It was Flagler Beach, it left us, and we want it back. We do understand, as a committee, that we need to do some work with Sen. Thrasher. Rep. Hutson is ready to take this. We have met with him, and we have petitions. We have a whole strategy on how we’re going to make this happen. One is a petition throughout the city, and we’ve done that successfully.”
Carney said that the city does not usually name its landmarks, though commission members challenged her on a couple of locations—Betty Steflick and Wickline parks
“Well, Betty Steflick is yours. Wickline, technically, you’re right, it’s part of a building process,” Carney said. “But the point is that Flagler Beach doesn’t want to go down that road. On a very small note, F comes before G, so if you’re scanning the Internet and you’re looking for camping in Flagler County, Flagler Beach area will come up before Gamble Rogers. It is a true and passionate attempt to work with the tourism department to get Flagler Beach back on the map.”
But judging from its camping bookings, it hasn’t been off the map.
Andy Miklos, a member of the economic task force, described how two decades ago the name change was going to happen whether the city wanted it or not. The city found itself limited to “damage control,” trying to preserve its name in the overall designation of the park. “This has been pretty much shoved down our throat,” Miklos said. “It was not popular with the residents, and what we would like is just to return it to the way it was. As far as the economic benefits, it’s hard to measure. It’s easier if you get out and talk to the people and ask them about the name change and what it means to them and their city. There is a great pride in keeping Flagler Beach in the name. It reflects on the community and the way the community looks to other people.”
Michelle Brown, owner of the Flagler Beach Gift Shop and another member of the task force, circulated petitions over the summer “to make sure the community was behind us and that people were behind our project,” she said. “I gained over 200 signatures in that time.” Just three people didn’t want to sign, but one merely wanted more information and only two were outright opposed. The signers included tourists and visitors “because I was asked to do that,” Brown said.
She said people “are not familiar with Gamble Rogers, the historical aspect of it, it’s really not helping us brand the area at all.”
Flagler Beach of course has an unsettled relationship with petitions: when a majority of the commission supports an issue, petitions are welcome. When a majority is opposed, petitions are ridiculed. Just last month a majority of the city commission made light of a petition that bore some 650 names in opposition to a $600,000 fire truck purchase that most of the commission supports, with only Carney in dissent. Carney, of course, supported the petition, which her husband had helped gather. Several commissioners suggested that many names on the petition were fictitious and that 650 signatures meant that 4,300 residents had not signed, and therefore were in favor of the truck purchase.
By that logic, as only 200 people signed the petition favoring a name change at the recreation area—with a number of those from out of town—then some 4,800 Flagler Beach residents would actually be opposed to the name change.
Such reasoning is not generally admissible beyond political bean-counters, with petitions gaining credibility in tandem with the number of verifiable signatures they bear. But the commission this time is behind the smaller petition in favor of changing Gamble Rogers’ name.
“We always have a habit of respecting the city, if they have a request,” County Commission Chairman George Hanns said before the unanimous vote. But he cautioned: “It’s probably going to be difficult at the state level.”
Gamble Rogers Sings Black Label Blues