The check was a little over two months late, and the county administration had to nudge Salamander Hotels and Resorts into issuing the payment. But on Wednesday, Salamander finally did so, wiring $250,000 to Flagler County government, an amount it was supposed to have sent in back in early March, according to its Feb. 3 agreement with the Flagler County Commission.
That was the early morning—at the tail end of a nearly eight-hour public hearing that had started the evening before—when the commission, on a 3-1 vote, approved Salamander’s plan to build a 198-room luxury beachfront hotel in place of a golf lodge at Hammock Beach Resort. It was the culmination of months of wrangling, coaxing and public conflict over the project, which a hung vote of the commission initially appeared to doom. Then Salamander’s president, Prem Devadas, in a remarkable bit of seemingly improvised negotiations with Frank Meeker, the commission chairman, agreed to a $500,000 payment to the county, plus the donation of an acre south of 16th Road in the Hammock, to help create better beach access for the public.
That pushed Meeker from a No vote to Yes, and the commission approved the project. But according to the agreement, Salamander was to make the first installment of that $500,000 payment as soon as the 30-day window enabling appeals of the commission decision had lapsed. That would have been around March 3.
“It could have happened sooner, but it didn’t, we got it today,” County Administrator Craig Coffey said on Thursday, referring to the $250,000, though he acknowledged there may have been some confusion as to when the money was due. “It wasn’t 100 percent clear, $250,000 right away, and that was—it should have happened quicker, or at least when the threat of a lawsuit had gone away, because there’s a 30-day window after you file everything, and I don’t know exactly when that happened, but it would have been probably a month ago.”
Different interpretations of what a final agreement means.
Asked if he had to press Salamander for the payment, Coffey nodded yes. “We just simply talked to them about that and that if they didn’t make that in a timely manner you were going to have a credibility issue,” Coffey said.
He was speaking just before a special meeting of the Flagler County Commission which, in another remarkable development, Devadas himself had asked for, and been granted, Thursday afternoon. Special meetings are rare and generally called by the commission chairman to address public or financial emergencies. Devadas wanted to turn the check presentation into a big occasion, and did: Salamander’s PR wing had sent out an email to media describing the occasion as an update and a photo-op. The county commissioners played along, posing for pictures with Devadas afterward, as did several members of the county staff, including its economic development director, essentially veiling the lateness of the payment in ceremony and flattery. Several news stories portrayed the occasion as a ceremonial gift-giving and a projection of what’s to come.
“This is really a big deal. We are managing a project in Destin,” Devadas told commissioners, referring to a $300 million project near Henderson Beach State Park, just east of Pensacola, “and we are managing this lodge. Those two projects are the only two luxury beachfront hotel projects in the United States. That’s a big deal. So this is going to get a lot of attention. We’re going to have a lot bigger events in the coming months and over the next couple of years than just this, and those alone are going to bring a lot of attention to Flagler County.”
In a brief interview before the meeting, Devadas said categorically that the money was not late. “We’re tying up and formalizing the agreement, and of course part of officializing it is the first contribution to the beach access fund,” he said. If anything, he saw the payment as early. “This payment should demonstrate to a lot of people that we’re very serious,” he said. “This payment is really not due until the final documents are signed, which is still a couple of weeks away.”
Meeker, who took some heat at the time of the Feb. 3 agreement for too hurriedly changing his vote for the payment—Meeker had initially asked for $700,000—echoed Devadas.
“The i’s are dotted, the t’s are basically crossed, it’s pretty much ready to go,” Meeker said of the agreement. “That finalizes all the requirements that came out of the meeting.” But asked to explain what agreement he was referring to, Meeker turned to Coffey, who was standing nearby. “It won’t be a Florida statute development order but it will be a development order of sorts,” Coffey said.
That agreement was requested by email and by phone Thursday and Friday, but Julie Murphy, the county spokesperson, said: “This agreement is the ordinance.” What subsequent matter the two sides are finalizing, she said, relates to platting details. But the payment matter was laid out in the ordinance as part of the eight conditions the commission added to the agreement in the February meeting. The ordinance explicitly states that a total of $500,000 would be donated by Salamander, “$250,000 upon execution of the agreement and $125,000 per year for the next two subsequent years with the funding for acquisition or development of a new beach access to mitigate for the impacts of Old South Park.”
The special meeting was hurriedly organized at Devadas’s request, and held in the first-floor conference room, adjacent to the regular chamber. It was not televised, as commission meetings normally are, and it lasted just long enough for Devadas to present the check and outline the next couple of years’ schedule regarding the development: Atlanta-based Cooper Carry will be the architect, the project will be put out to bid to five or six general contractors (it’s unlikely that a Flagler contractor is hired, as there isn’t one who could handle a project of this size, Devadas said, though subcontractors and specialty works might match up with local businesses), and construction should begin next February. In the interim, Salamander will seek to raise the $72 million needed for the project through investors.
“And so for us this signifies much more than a first installment of a contribution. Really for us in many ways it’s the official kick-off of this project,” Devadas said. “I know that you want nothing else but for us to do this right, and we’re going to do it right.”