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Candor, Humor and a Few Sharp Jabs from Jim Landon in a State of the City Overview

| April 15, 2015

Some 90 people turned up for Palm Coast City Manager Jim Landon's Lunch 'n Learn presentation at the Community Center this morning. (© FlaglerLive)

Some 90 people turned up for Palm Coast City Manager Jim Landon’s Lunch ‘n Learn presentation at the Community Center this morning. (© FlaglerLive)

When he’s not in a subordinate role—when he doesn’t have to answer to council members or sit through the verbal version of what he calls “nastygrams” at council meeting, where he sometimes looks as put out as Barack Obama in his first debate with Mitt Romney—Palm Coast City Manager Jim Landon is genial, humorous, relaxed, quick on his feet and in near-full command of a room, as he was today before close to 90 people at the Palm Coast Community Center. He held their attention for a full, unflagging 110 minutes.

They were a friendly crowd, almost all on the more senior side of the city’s demographics (in other words, more representative than not of the city’s demographics). The free bagged lunches were surely one way to pack the room for the “lunch ‘n Learn” occasion—the city picked up the $400 tab—but so was the speaker: Landon presented the equivalent of a city manager’s stump speech, a broad and insider view of the state of the city, addressing many rumors (“I love to hear rumors,” he said to start things off, because he likes setting them straight), dropping a few tantalizing surprises about what people may see soon and where, and generally providing an upbeat overview of Palm Coast  governments and its many works.

“You know the other thing you do?” Landon asked the crowd after explaining how morning showers in most households drain the city’s water tanks. He was explaining the reach and ubiquity of government services. And in this case talk had turned to sewers. “You send us something, first thing in the morning. You never say thank you. You just expect to push the little lever and it’s going to disappear and now, from now on, you can say thank city for taking my favorite—whatever. You do. But the reason I like pointing those things out when I can is that we touch your lives a lot more than sometimes you realize.”

So it went, starting with those rumors: is LA Fitness coming to town? Not to Landon’s knowledge.  “I’ve heard a lot of retail names. LA Fitness is not one of them,” but many retailers are “taking a hard look at Palm Coast,” Landon said. That immediately brought up Walmart and its perennial promise to build at the south end of Old Kings Road, near State Road 100. At first Landon delayed answering the question, because it was part of his subsequent presentation, but when it came time for it, he laid it out:

He’d been explaining the four-laning of the rest of Old Kings Road, from Town Center Boulevard north, and how that’s to be paid for by property owners along the way—but not until more development occurs there. That had been the reason to widen the southern portion of Old Kings Road, for Walmart, which never built on the parcel it bought. The city had borrowed money from its own utility fund to build that section of road on the assumption that future development would eventually allow it to refinance the project with bonds. But the bond market went south and didn’t allow it, leaving the city holding the bag.

Landon didn’t get into all that: his presentation is designed to focus on the brighter side of things. But he did speak about the latest with Walmart. “We contact them periodically and we give them the housing start numbers and we’re back and up and running and you need to take a look at it. And for the most part Walmart doesn’t even return your call unless it’s in their best interest. But about three weeks ago their real estate broker called our economic development people and said, what’s going on in Palm Coast?” Walmart was wondering if a big box store had closed here. It hadn’t. Walmart noted that its local store in the city had seen its sales “go through the ceiling” recently.

An upbeat outlook on a city teeming with construction, and even a little renewed interest from Walmart about that second store.

“So, I don’t know when, but it’s all a matter of what those numbers are on their computers,” Landon said. The Florida Department of Revenue reports, in tabulations summarized by Palm Coast, that taxable sales overall have increased 7 percent in Flagler County in 2014, over the previous year, when sales had also increased 7 percent. The 2014 figure was better than Volusia’s 6.6 percent increase, but behind St. Johns’s nearly 10 percent increase. See the tabulations here. Walmart wasn’t looking at those overall figures, but at figures within its own store in the heart of Palm Coast.

“It’s nice to have Walmart call us and ask. Can I tell you when?” Landon said, referring to when Walmart might build that second store. “No, but I can tell you they continue to monitor us, and it’s all about growth, and it’s not about just how much we have grown. When they open their store, they expect their current store to dip temporarily. But it’s got to start climbing again. And their new store definitely has some climbing and they only know that that will occur if they have enough new customers in the area.”

Some of that activity is happening: After the housing bust had reduced housing starts to a few dozen in 2010 and 2011, activity has been picking up annually, with some 325 housing starts last year, and 300 to 400 projected this year. That’s still a far cry from the 400 to 500 starts a month at the height of the bubble, but those numbers, Landon said, were “too much, absolutely.”

Employment in the county has also changed dramatically since 2010, when, in Flagler and Palm Coast, just under 28,000 people held jobs, compared to just over 40,000 in February, with the unemployment rate cut by well over half, down to 6.7 percent. Tourism, too, is up significantly, as attested by surging bed-tax revenue.

The city is seeing plenty of economic activity now and will see more in the months ahead, much of it publicly funded, some of it not: the widening of Palm Coast Parkway, of course, but also the construction of the Matanzas Woods interchange with I-95, which, Landon said, will be closing the Matanzas Woods Parkway bridge starting this summer, soon after school lets out nearby. The city will be a beehive of construction activity, from City Hall in Town Center to Holland Park to the Palm Harbor Parkway extension, simultaneous with the Matanzas Woods interchange, not to mention ongoing private redevelopments such as Island Walk (the former Palm Harbor Shopping Center) and Palm Coast Landings, the senior living apartments in Town Center.

Landon unplugged. (© FlaglerLive)

Landon unplugged. (© FlaglerLive)

“Who still thinks City Hall is a waste of your money?” Landon asked. There was barely a peep. “From a financial standpoint, if you could pay cash for a house and get rid of rent and you own your house and have no more payments, would you do it?” That one got more audible approval. The more frequent question Landon gets these days is: “Where is city hall?” That, and an echo of the housing bust: “When will Town Center take off?” a question he heard this morning. He was quick to remind the audience that Publix, the Hilton Garden Inn, Target are all part of the Town Center development, as is the movie theater and the office building, not far from the future city hall, that houses ACI, one of the largest private employers in the city.

There was some concern about what will happen to City Marketplace when the city offices move out, creating a gaping emptiness in the commercial development. To that, Landon reserved some of the morning’s sharpest words, directed at John C. Bills Corp.

“It’s sad,” Landon said. “The new owner came in, he raised rents. I didn’t get it. You raise rents when you add value and things are hopping and everything. They came in, doubled, tripled rents. Their association fee went up, I mean, the things they were doing to the tenants were amazing to me. I saw boxes going out to cars constantly, and they said we’re out of here. That’s free enterprise also. Now, when we leave, yeah, that’s going to create a void, but to tell you the truth we shouldn’t be in a retail center. We’re not where we belong there, and I don’t think it’s our responsibility to bail out the landlord that doesn’t seem to know how to take care of his tenants. So hopefully that will turn around, but something different is going to have to happen.”

A good portion of the talk was devoted to the nuts and bolts of city initiatives, including some wending their way before the city council this month—fences in front yards, which got very negative reviews from this morning’s crowd (“you need to say that louder to five city council members. I’m not one of them”), or the city’s proposal to spend $2 million a year fixing 5 miles a year of waterlogged swales, which would entail working over quite a bit of private property, too—another initiative that did not get much enthusiastic response today.

Landon was asked about two recurring golf matters: the money-losing Palm Harbor Golf Course, which the city owns, and the Matanzas Woods Golf Course, where the grass tends to overgrow. Landon had no clear answers on either other than his defense of the city holding on to the Palm Harbor greens. The reason: it helps property values in surrounding areas. This, even though he acknowledges: “If you want to make money in a business, let me give you a pointer, do not get into golf in Palm Coast, part of the problem is we’re saturated.”

But even Landon doesn’t buy the notion that younger people can be attracted to the game. He cited his own granddaughter, now entering high school. “Doesn’t even cross her mind, not even an option.” As for men like him spending five hours playing golf on the weekend, he said that would have him see a divorce attorney by Monday: families are no longer inclined to that sort of lifestyle.

When he started his talk at 11 a.m., Landon joked that he had the community center until 5 p.m. He may not have been kidding. A staffer had to call out to the assembly that he’d take one last question almost two hours into the presentation. His powerpoint is accessible here or below.

Palm Coast Overview, Jim Landon (2015)

10 Responses for “Candor, Humor and a Few Sharp Jabs from Jim Landon in a State of the City Overview”

  1. Tom Jacks says:

    Just another rosy picture from a psychological liar. I’m surprised Obama hasn’t called him to be his press secretary.

  2. Nalla C says:

    Keep a close eye on Wal-Mart, no matter what they’re doing. ABC Action News in Tampa reported yesterday that Wal-Mart suddenly and without warning closed the Brandon FL location, citing “plumbing problems”. They did this in four other small- to mid-size markets’, supercenters and regular stores. They claimed it was about “plumbing problems” and that it was temporary. This threw over 2000 people out of work suddenly and without warning.

    Yes, in all five stores, the same reason was given. Thing is, the news station in Tampa goes on to say that they checked for work permits to “fix” the plumbing problems and found none. Perhaps the city of Palm Coast shouldn’t be dealing with this bunch at all.

    (links available by request), not sure if I can post them in a comment?)

  3. Groot says:

    Saturated in golf in Palm Coast? That is so inaccurate. Yes, we are saturated in golf in Palm Coast if you’re Jim Landon, he lives in proximity to two. Closest public course to me is now 10 miles away. The problem is not too many golf courses but mismanagement of golf courses. Palm Harbor gets plenty of play. Where is the money going? Why hasn’t Kemper been held accountable? Why was their contract renewed? Why does the city assume the loss? If the contracting was done correctly, the risk of operating the course should have been transferred to Kemper. Since we have too much golf in Palm Coast, I suggest we close Palm Harbor and put it up for sale to a private entity. Obviously, the city’s incompetence in the matter shows they are not capable of contracting it out. Get rid of that tennis center. Sell it to pay of the debt it has caused. Yeah, too much golf. We drive to Bunnell, St Augustine or Ormond to play golf because the courses here are too crowded with slow play (Palm Harbor) or in poor condition (Cypress and Pine). Really, he really said we’re saturated in golf? No, we’re saturated in waste, incompetence and negligence.

  4. Brad W says:

    I’ve lived here for 10 years now. We built here because we could tell it was a nice place to live and that was forward thinking. 10 years later I do not ever regret that decision. This is a great place to live and I like the direction we are headed.

    It’s interesting when I read the “anonymous” negative comments, because they are always filled with made up conspiracies and about what everyone else should do but never about what they will (or can) do. They simply like to complain for sake of complaining about problems without ever bringing solutions.

    Golf, for example, is grossly misunderstood in the area. We have right now Palm Harbor, Pine, Cypress, Conservatory, Ocean Hammock, Grand Haven, & Grand Reserve. That’s 7 courses with a County population of under 100,000. Attracting outside players is not going to happen since neighboring Counties also have an ample amount of courses for their area. All the while, play is on the decline. What’s a solution? More events, for one, such as junior tournaments in the area. The second is alternative formats of of play such as Foot Golf which invites a whole new consumer base with little cost initially and little risk with the opportunity to stop the “bleeding” and turn a profit. This is a great solution for Palm Harbor. Matanzas is closed and the plan to turn it into a regional park with the land owned by the City was the bets opportunity Matanzas had.

    Kemper is not in the business of owning courses, and closing Palm Harbor would damage property values which would lower tax revenues and effect everyone. This is also true for the Pine Course and Cypress. So if someone thinks they are management issues, and believes they could run those facilities successfully themselves then I think those people should step up and purchase the courses and show us all that they are correct. But I do not think we will see that.

  5. Groot says:

    I cannot afford to play golf at the following courses; the Conservatory, Ocean Hammock and Grand Haven. In addition, they are private courses. The only course we play in Flagler County is Grand Reserve. A public course, nice staff, well maintained and a good price and pace of play. We do not play at Palm Harbor due to very slow play due to over crowding and a very elderly clientele. We do not play at Pine and Cypress due to poor conditions, over priced for what it is and rude staff. That leaves us Grand Reserve. It is the only affordable course in good condition in Flagler County. Mr Landon must accept responsibility for his short comings and failures and not shift it blame to a sport. Saturated in golf is the reason why the tennis center and Palm Harbor still are running a deficit? That is called scapegoating and not accepting responsibility. He needs to learn how to contract with private vendors and accept responsibility or step down. He literally owns this town by virtue of his open ended contract. I am not being negative. I am a home owner of 8 years who is at this point totally frustrated with ineptitude and incompetence at the city level. I also have 35 years experience in government mostly at management level. Landon has to go and go soon.

    • Brad W says:

      Perhaps you could explain how what you can and can not afford in terms of courses, and what courses are and are not available to you has anything to do with the overall issue with these facilities in the area? The facts are the facts . . . there are 7 courses already with only so many players. You have 3 of the most accessible (and affordable) courses in the area – Pine, Cypress, and Palm Harbor – all struggling. The private courses have also seen huge declines and have opened their doors more to outside players. The problem is not supply (or player experience), and that is very easy to see. The issue is demand.

      Granted, I agree that Kemper is probably not the best choice. But that was community pressure. Just like the Matanzas group wanted to show up with a petition full of names to make their case regarding that course (even when nothing was in front of the Council to protest), the folks involved with Palm Harbor did a pretty good job stating their case for keeping Kemper. People want our City government to listen and carry out the “will of the people” . . . until it doesn’t suit them I guess. But the reality is that no matter what management company/people or who the City Manager is it is not going to change the demand issue. Two possible solutions to focus on to increase traffic are events and alternative play opportunities. This is especially true at Palm Harbor. Again, if Foot Golf was offered at Palm Harbor I firmly believe you would see huge differences and end the revenue problems. The Tennis Center needs more Junior and Adult tournaments as well as more social types of events such as Cardio Tennis (XGLOSive is a cool night time format of that as well).

      People like to point fingers, and I think it’s easy to just blame the City Manager for everything and try to paint everything in a negative light. But the reality is that things are pretty good, and Landon is not doing that bad of a job. That’s a pretty tough job, but there are a ton of positive things going on in the area. It’s like if you have your house up for sale in the area and it’s not selling under the 90 day average in the area right now and the person refuses to face reality that their house is priced too high since it is older, has an out-dated kitchen (most important room in the house to buyers), and buyers could build brand new with the same features for less. The person blaming “the market” and the agent or assuming nothing is selling is totally remiss, because a lot of houses are selling. The person’s house is just priced wrong and that’s why it’s not selling. My point being that it’s easy to speculate and point fingers, but that’s never a recipe to solve any problem. And at the end of the day . . . no one is keeping anyone here that doesn’t like it.

  6. Robert McKenna says:

    Landon, the main cause of most problems in Palm Coast, he bends over backwards to please builders, this guy has to Go, they all do, the Mayor should have retired years ago, Y does he stay, MONEY, politics & corruption go hand and hand, Jim Landon does what he wants when he wants, I and several others met with Landon & the mayor on the sale of Mantanzas Woods, all BS, we met with Landon with a petition with hundreds of signatures, asked Landon 1 question, how to save Mantanzas Woods, his answer, your best chance is to bring back Jim Culluis, how dare a city manager steer us back to a Builder, read between the lines, MONEY

  7. Groot says:

    My final opinion and recommendation on the matter is, to close both the tennis center and the golf course at this point. The city has not been able to effectively manage the contracts for either facility. Personally, I do not want another penny of tax dollars going for either lost cause. Also, the per capita income and demographics do not warrant a municipal golf course and certainly, not a municipal tennis center. This is not W Palm Beach or Indian Springs. This is Palm Coast, it is what it is and the city needs to stop wasting money on those two facilities. Not enough tax payers and visitors use them, so close them if they don’t turn a profit. Also, there is no need for anyone to get personal with anyone about anything on this forum.

  8. palmcoastpioneers says:

    The Golf Courses & Recreational areas and their acreage are Federally Ordered REDRESS Compensation for me / us / Palm Coast pursuant Federal Trade Commission Consent Agreement F.T.C. C 2854.

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