Despite Big Economic Impact, Flagler Beach Mostly Snubs Groundbreaking to Double Gamble Rogers Park’s Camping Sites
FlaglerLive | October 16, 2014
So much for Flagler Beach’s support of the state park it wanted to rename in its own honor. Or Flagler Beach’s Economic Development Task Force’s claim that the recreation area is an integral part of Flagler Beach’s business landscape. It wasn’t part of the task force’s landscape Thursday morning.
There was a groundbreaking at Gamble Rogers State Recreation Area this morning, for a project that will double the capacity of the park’s extremely popular camping and RV sites and, in Florida Park Service Director Donald Forgione’s words, “equivalent to a hotel in town doubling their occupancy,” and further enlarging the $12 million economic impact the park currently has on Flagler Beach and its surroundings, according to state figures.
But while Forgione was there, as was the Department of Environmental Protection’s Number 2–Deputy Secretary Katy Fenton—as were two Flagler County commissioners, as were a small contingent of park service rangers and officials and the president of the Friends of Gamble Rogers, none of the 13 members of the task force showed up. Only one city commissioner showed up (Marshall Shupe), and one city staffer: Kay McNeely, the city engineer’s administrative assistant.
“I was never given this nor was the city manager,” Penny Overstreet, the city clerk, said today, “so we didn’t even know anything about it.”
But clearly, city officials were aware of the groundbreaking. All but one commissioner (Joy McGrew, who asked not to have a city email account when she was last elected) got an emailed invitation from DEP on Sept. 30. Just as clearly, only two thought it notable enough to be there, a snub that may have something to do with the collapse last month of the task force’s and city commission’s attempt to revert the recreation area’s name to its pre-Gamble Rogers days, when it was just the Flagler Beach State Recreation Area. Snubs of the sort are not likely to play well in state officials’ eyes in any future attempt to revive the name-change initiative, as Commission Chairwoman Kim Carney suggested last month it would be sometime in the future.
The top state officials who spoke at the groundbreaking this morning stressed the park’s economic impact and its unique popularity in the state’s 171 parks (55 of which offer camping). “As far as occupancy rate,” said Russell Budell, a spokesman with the Department of Environmental Protection (who was also there), “this is the most well-occupied in the whole state.” Visitors would be hard pressed to find an opening any time in the next year. No hotel in the county can boast that sort of occupancy. The park as a whole drew 155,000 visitors last year, Park Manager Barbara Roberts said.
The project that just begun there will add 30 RV sites and four tent sites to the park’s existing 34 RV sites, with construction investment of close to $2 million, but on the opposite side of the park, nearer the Intracoastal Waterway. The park currently employs eight people full time and four part-time. With the expansion, Roberts said, “we will need to bring additional employees. We don’t have a number at this point, but maybe three. We’re also very lucky to have our volunteers who help us a lot with the operation of our park.”
Roberts addressed the name-change: “The public sort of voiced their opinion,” the park director said, “and now we’re where we’re at, keeping the name where it is. I’m happy with the name.” She said the “marketplace of ideas” kicked in and preserved the name.
“In 1983,” Forgione said, “I applied to this park to be a park ranger. They didn’t hire me.” He ended up working at a park in Hardee Country. “But Flagler Beach still holds a special place in my heart.” Campgrounds, he said, are a “park experience that just keeps going and going and going. It’s a 24-hour camp experience.”
The new sites will be built in a clearing, with minimal tree removal, deep inside the park’s property, on top of an old spoil pile generated from dredging the Intracoastal, so it will cause minimal disturbance to the environment. “This is an already disturbed area, so if you’re going to put a campground, this is where to do it,” Paul Haydt, president of the Friends of Gamble Rogers State Park, said, walking in the area to be developed for the site. Today it looks like a sandy clearing, with a few felled trees, a few elevation markers, and a lot of heavy equipment track marks, though no heavy equipment was visible. The actual groundbreaking took place elsewhere, close to the pavilion where the ceremony was held.
“Having more access to it is all good,” Haydt said, just a touch more reserved with his enthusiasm than state officials had been. “The more people, the better exposure, but you know, growth is always a double-edged sword. The problem with the park is it’s too small, we can’t really have large events.” Noting the zero vacancy rate, he added: “Demand is so high, so I guess they have to respond to it. I’m glad they did it in a reasonable way. They’re not cutting down the trees, they’re putting it in a back field.”