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Tourism Panel Clears Half-Step Toward Palm Coast Arts Foundation Center, But Questions Persist

| June 30, 2010

Imagine that: the Palm Coast Arts Foundation's cultural center, though it would begin with smaller-scale banquet and meeting rooms.

It’s a go: a Flagler Tourist Development Council committee voted today to recommend that the council approve conducting a study on the feasibility of an arts and conference venue for Town Center.

The council is ready to spend up to $50,000 for such a study. But until today the allocation wasn’t tied to a set of drawings for a specific plan. The council’s Convention Center Feasibility Committee saw those plans in a presentation by the Palm Coast Arts Foundation. The committee liked what it saw, albeit with some serious reservations by some and equally serious enthusiasm by others. For the foundation, which has a checkered history, it’s the closet it’s come to turning an ambitious concept into reality, though the distance to that reality remains considerable.

The Palm Coast Arts Foundation has big ideas for Town Center: an arts center big towns could envy, including a triple-stage theater that would seat up to 2,200, art galleries, classrooms, gift and coffee shops, a sculpture garden, and a banquet and events center on land the Town Center Developer granted for various public uses, including a cultural center, in 2004.

The idea has been floating around since 2006, when Palm Coast signed an agreement with the foundation to develop what was then imagined as a $30 million the arts center, but with draconian conditions that virtually set up the foundation to fail. The city contributed nothing more than the ink then-City Manager Dick Kelton used to sign the deal. The foundation had to raise $1.5 million within a year for the agreement to stick. It didn’t. Draconian conditions or not, the foundation did a dismal job of fundraising to start with. The agreement was scrapped. Palm Coast, which maintains Town Center development in its priorities (that’s one reason the city wants to build a city hall there), shrugged off the project.

Last year the foundation reorganized under new management, rebranded itself, and re-launched the arts center project, breaking it down into phases.

“We realized that in this economy, raising $30 million for the arts center would be a stretch,” Arts Foundation President Sam Perkovich said, “so we changed our focus to the banquet and events center. We added more flexible space to both buildings in the process so there is something for everyone.”

The 116,000-square-foot Banquet and Events Center would go up first. Foundation Vice President Jim Harter put that cost at $3.5 million. The project caught the attention of the Tourism Development Council, the county agency that markets Flagler and uses $1 million of its annual $2.4 million budget for public or non-profit construction projects such as museums and concert halls.

The council is interested in a conference and convention center. Aside from some conference space at the Hammock Beach resort, which has limited capacity, there is no conferencing space in Palm Coast. The council is looking at the arts foundation’s events center as a good first step for both groups.

That said, the arts group isn’t about to get a pass on its financial ability to pull off its share (the lion’s share) of the project. Harter said it’ll have the money by year’s end. Mary DiStefano, a Palm Coast City Council member and a member of the tourist council, isn’t so sure. “Before I can help them along I need to know better about the expenses and the income,” DiStefano said, addressing the foundation’s representatives at the meeting. “You just can’t go to the bank and ask them $100,000 and not show them what you’re going to do. And currently I remember, you only have $70,000. Today. And it’s June 30.” So for the tourism council to pony up more money in the future–the far larger sums needed to help build the art foundation’s grand vision, should a public-private partnership develop–“we just need more information than what we’re given here today.”

Bob DeVore, a developer and a member of the council, suggested to DiStefano–and others–that they’d be missing an opportunity by not embracing the arts group’s vision as what should be in place “when we grow up” 30 to 40 years from now. “We should join with these folks and help them make this a realty and help them spend some of our bed taxes,” DeVore said. (The tourism council’s budget is made up almost entirely of revenue from the 3 percent bed tax on hotel stays, RVs and other recreational services. No local property taxes are involved. The council also gets some state environmental grants.)

Committee members pointed to other concerns, such as the arts group’s marketing plan, which, as Pam Walker, the committee’s chairwoman, noted, pays little attention to marketing beyond Flagler’s borders. “You need an A-1 top marketing group on board from day one to market outside the county,” Walker said, suggesting that the tourism council’s capabilities could be put to that use. Perkovitch said later that the group is merely taking things one step at a time, though the steps it has taken since rebranding itself are intended to send a signal to the community that the foundation is an essentially new organization.

“Beside the obvious change of leadership, we’re moving from a club to a business,” Perkovich said. “I’m taking some heat for this but am in no way belittling what was accomplished in the past, as I was a founding member.” (Those annual concerts locally by the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra are one of the foundation’s signature events.) The group has effected procedural changes to the way it runs itself, down to more formal board meetings, and it has hired a part-time grant writer (Donna Banks) and delegating Betty Chapman, one of its board members, to organize a fund-raising campaign.

“We intend to partner with the community first, other arts groups, business groups, service groups, hotels, golf courses, students, churches,” Perkovich said. “We will start that grass roots phase of our marketing and fund-raising as soon as our virtual tour-powerpoint is ready,” probably next month. “Then we will branch out with the city and county, etc., to cover the northeast corridor of Florida and continue our outreach out of state.”

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