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Spartan Extreme Race Re-Sets for Flagler: New Location, Same Lack of Transparency

| October 22, 2015

Spartan racers go through man-made obstacles that upend the landscape to challenge racers' endurance.

Spartan racers go through man-made obstacles that upend the landscape to challenge racers’ endurance. (Devion Acker)

Flagler County commissioners learned about it behind the scenes from County Administrator Craig Coffey this week but haven’t yet spoken of it openly. On Thursday, Coffey confirmed it: the Spartan extreme-sport race the tourism office arranged to bring to Princess Place Preserve for an event–an arrangement that collapsed in the face of public opposition–will be coming to Flagler County after all, but at a different location.

The new arrangement, first reported today by the News-Journal, would have the race take place at the privately owned Florida Cracker Ranch, owned by Swayne Strickland, near Korona south of Bunnell next March 19 (the date set at one point for the Princess Place run). The race does not yet appear on Spartan’s schedule of coming races. Last summer, in one of the many missteps that bedeviled the deal, Spartan opened registration for the Princess Place race before the county administration had approved a contract or the county commission had approved the arrangement. It had done so at the signal of Matt Dunn, who heads the county’s tourism office, even though Dunn had not gotten clearance from the commission. Spartan currently lists a March 19 race in Las Vegas.

Public opposition to a Spartan race at Princess Place was generally accompanied by a more welcoming attitude toward such a project if it were placed at a more appropriate location, and if it was handled more transparently, especially when it involves large sums of public money and public services. So far, county officials have it roughly half right, with serious questions of lack of openness and patronage undermining the new approach.

Though Dunn appeared before the Tourist Development Council Wednesday with a long list of recent accomplishments and outlines of ongoing projects, as he usually does at every monthly meeting of the TDC, he never mentioned the race to council members. Bill McGuire, the Palm Coast City Council member who represents the city on the tourism board, was not pleased by the silence or by Dunn’s suggestion to the News-Journal that the TDC has already heard the Spartan proposal and won’t need to hear it again. Dunn told the paper that the matter will go before the county commission in November. That suggestion was echoed by Coffey but not by TDC Chairman Nate McLaughlin, who is also a county commissioner, and not welcomed by McGuire.

Bill McGuire. (© FlaglerLive)

Bill McGuire. (© FlaglerLive)

“I’m in a mystery as to why it wasn’t brought up at the TDC yesterday,” McGuire said Thursday. “There wasn’t any discussion at the meting before or afterward about it and it wasn’t on the agenda. As far as I was concerned it was a dead deal when the thing at Princess Place was cancelled I thought it was the last we’d heard about it.”

McGuire wasn’t objecting to the new potential for a race in Flagler, but to the manner in which it is being presented–and not presented to the appropriate channels. He noted that he has one-on-one meetings with Dunn to review the budget, when Dunn has ample opportunity to mention such developments. He has not done so. “It looks as if something surreptitious is taking place,” McGuire said. “Whether it is or not I don’t know, but this is not the way tourism events are to be presented.”

McGuire isn’t alone in raising issues with the opacity of the process. George Allen III, who with his family owns one of the single-largest stretches of land in family hands in the county, was “upset” to read about the deal that followed contact with several landowners when he was never contacted. “We’d have liked to have a chance to bid on it or at least have a chance at it,” Allen said, citing the county’s involvement (“Matt Dunns seems to be taking credit for getting it there”), making it what is essentially a government-facilitated arrangement. “We had land available, probably would have worked, but we weren’t contacted at all,” he said. The land had for many years been part of Mud Muckers, the Bunnell outdoors company. (The land stretches west of Bunnell, from U.S. 1 all the way to State Road 100.)

A land-owner raises questions of fairness while Tourism Council members remind Matt Dunn they still exist.

“I just thought it wasn’t real fair for the county doing something like that,” Allen said.

McLaughlin said nothing about the deal is done, and he was adamant that the deal must go through the Tourist Development Council first.

“My understanding is that it’s not ready to be brought to TDC,” McLaughlin said. “I don’t know when it’s coming to us but Matt will make his application when he’s fully ready to bring it up.” Asked specifically whether he intends the project to go through TDC, McLaughlin said: “Absolutely, this has to go through all the channels, there’s nothing here that’s a done deal, it still has to be heard and evaluated by the TDC and the BOCC,” the Board of County Commissioners.

More often than not Spartan contracts with private resorts or land owners to run its races, paying thousands of dollars for access to the venues.

Dunn’s original deal with Spartan earlier this year, arranged with Coffey’s blessing, promised to cede large sections of Princess Place to the privately run organization, with a $55,000 subsidy from the county, $25,000 of it cash and much of the rest in publicly funded services such as fire and rescue protection, utilities and other amenities. The county was reviewing the contract from Spartan when Dunn announced the arrangement to the TDC last August, triggering a withering public backlash over the deal-making’s lack of transparency and the use of Princess Place for an event that by design upends the landscape to create obstacles that challenge runners. The races draw up to 6,000 participants and thousands of spectators.

Dunn portrayed the package’s monetary award to Spartan as still being “on the table” when he spoke to the News-Journal’s Aaron London (a reporter he described to Spartan as “good to us,” and to whom he grants interviews. Dunn does not respond to FlaglerLive’s interview requests.) Coffey, the county administrator, said he didn’t know if the monetary package is the same, but that the two packages would likely be “similar.”

Asked if the package still being on the table meant that it could bypass the TDC, McLaughlin was clear. “That is not my understanding, no,” McLaughlin said today. “My understanding is it’s a different event. We approved it for Princess Place. I would think if the TDC is going to approve it you still have to bring it back and acknowledge the change and ensure that the TDC is still on board with it. I don’t see anything automatic here, I don’t see anything automatic at all.”

Dunn, who becomes a county employee starting in January (he was employed by the chamber of commerce previously, though his salary was always taxpayer-funded), has always been assiduous in his work: his ability to secure sports events by the slew for Flagler is what has endeared him to county officials, who see the events as pistons in the county’s development economic engine: hotel and motel room bookings continue to increase on his watch, with tourism tax revenue set to exceed $2 million this year, a record. (“Our goal all along has been to create a collection that surpasses the $2 million mark,” Dunn said, with some 2,200 more hotel rooms sold this year compared to last.)

Matt Dunn. (© FlaglerLive)

Matt Dunn. (© FlaglerLive)

But the Spartan debacle brought to light another matter Dunn had not openly disclosed to the TDC, except in his job interview with the chamber of commerce at the time of his hiring: his side business, the Dunn Agency, designed to do much of what Dunn does now for the county.

McGuire brought up that matter at the end of the TDC meeting Thursday, forcing Dunn, for the first time, to publicly acknowledge his agency and its status, and his intentions with it.

“This is not something that is not pleasant,” McGuire told Dunn, “but with the recent coverage in the local media about your activities as TDC director, for which I applaud you, there has been some criticism if you will of your secondary business. Would you comment to the board at this time as to what impact if any that this has on your ability to function as TDC director.”

“I made a commitment to the chamber when I accepted the position to make the LLC inactive,” Dunn said. “We were very clear in our understanding that I was going to maintain the filing and I have done so for personal tax reasons for investments that I have through the company. At no time since January of 2014 has there been activity with the company whatsoever in terms of seeking any additional revenue, and with that, I’ll make this statement that, you know, I dove into this job with both feet, I could have certainly been better about trying to close things out, I’m very well aware that the website still exists and is up and running although there are some details with the website, for example my Twitter feed automatically just is posted. Of course, when I’m tweeting, I’m tweeting about Palm Coast and Flagler Beaches, not about my former organization. So that, combined with even some personal social media that I have, you know, I just never went back and cleaned any of that up, because my focus was on changing this organization around. So there are some things that I will make sure I button up before we become a county department.”

“Speaking for myself,” McGuire said, “I don’t care if you go out on Highway 100, stand on your head and spit quarters as long as you’re doing a workman-like job for the tourism effort. But I wanted this to come forward so that there’s transparency in the activities that you perform as a member of the Board of County Commissioners’ staff.”

“For the public record, Mr. Dunn and his staff will be subject to, as of January 1st, employee policies of the county,” McLaughlin told the rest of the TDC. “So competitive jobs and things like that obviously are prohibited. But I’ll speak to Mr. Dunn’s integrity.”

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15 Responses for “Spartan Extreme Race Re-Sets for Flagler: New Location, Same Lack of Transparency”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I think it was right to stop the first deal, this one sounds ok to me. Hopefully it will bring much needed tourism to Palm Coast.

  2. Common Practice says:

    And the County Commissioners let this lack of transparency occur time after time. They even renew contracts for the countying attorney and county administrator without question, or it being on their meeting agenda knowing their common practice is to not be transparant….shame, shame, shame! Time to vote all incumbents out!!!!!!

  3. The Watchman says:

    There needs to be an audit of the “coffers” of County Administrator Craig Coffey . Too much money has been moving around UNDER the TABLES the last 5 years !!

  4. confidential says:

    No free fire, sheriff and emergency services paid by my taxes or taken away from us to serve a Spartan race for profit!! When any community Non for profit event requires those services the community organizations have to pay for that, then no freebies here for Dunn, Coffey and Spartan!! These FCBCC better hear our pleas!

  5. carol says:

    This guy Mr. Dunn is double dipping on tax payer’s money the the CC knows it, and allows it??
    He gotta go.

  6. tulip says:

    Sounds like the county is going to pay for everything and get back practically nothing. I wonder how much they are going to pay Strickland and others? I do not understand why the commissioners, county manager and county attorney are so willing to pay for everything and allow Spartan et al to reap in big money.
    Yes, we have hotels and restaurants, but we don’t have enough rooms in Flagler County to handle it, so a lot of money probably will go to Volusia, taking revenue from us.

    I think that any contract drawn up should be looked at closely and with the intention of making some money on this, not giving it all away and shame on those that don’t do that.

    Dunn does not come across as totally open and above board either and has a lot of “power” to make big money for his own personal agenda at our expense.

  7. Sherry says:

    Yet again our BOCC is allowing Dunn and Coffey to have a completely “non-transparent” free hand to step far beyond what should be their limits of authority to obviously make promises behind closed doors.

    Although I personally wrote emails to each of our commissioners after Flaglerlive brought the Princess Place debacle into the “sunshine”, and I received assurances that the “process” for developing such projects would be studied and more transparency and control by the BOCC sought. . . the SAME process is being used to require tax payers to financially support a PRIVATE “for profit” enterprise. . . just at a different location!

    Obviously our BOCC did not really listen to the alarming concerns of many constituents who voiced their opposition not only to the use of Princess Place , but for the arrogant lack of transparency by Dunn and Coffey. Many actually called for them to be fired. Yet instead Dunn and Coffey are having their contracts “automatically” extended and given large raises!

    This lack of response by the BOCC to the concerns of their constituents is a slap in the face to our citizens and completely unacceptable! We should certainly see this as a call to clean out our BOCC at election time and replace them with those who will actually be accountable and responsible to the will of the people!

  8. Anonymous says:

    Are all the people who are too old or out of shape to participate in this race going to try to ruin it (again) for those who want to do it? This will bring in tourists and revenue to surrounding businesses, hotels, restaurants, etc…. Quit your whining and be appreciative for the opportunity. (btw – I am too old and out of shape for this, but I am glad it is coming to our area!!!)

  9. snapperhead says:

    How much of the increase in bed tax collections is just a product of an improving economy and higher room rates and how much the “golden boy” Dunn has generated? I love how in their economic impact reports there’s never any offset in increased costs for holding these events. The trash doesn’t remove itself, the fields don’t maintain and repair themselves, city and county personnel costs etc etc. There’s doesn’t seem to be a significant increase in funds leftover from bed tax collection revenue as the TDC budget expands year after year. What’s the gain if you collect $2 million and spend $1.25 million. Or collect $1.5 million and spend $750000. oh I forgot…some of the tourism spending is going to trickle down and make life all wonderful here in lil ol Flagler county. The new crapper at Varn park is going to bring’em in in droves.No solutions to bring higher education and better paying jobs here so let’s pick the low hanging fruit…..tourism dollars…. Floriduh at it’s finest

  10. layla says:

    VERY typical response from Flagler “officials”. Now you may have an idea why they don’t want a charter review. You didn’t want to support that either, Mr. McGuire.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Again? And he talked to the media before the Commissioners? He has to go

  12. Anonymous says:

    Oh the humanity!!!

    Having thousands of people, most being very fit, having the nerve to show up and do something positive like…*GASP!* enjoy outside and do an obstacle course race!

    How dare they eat meals, buy gas, spend the night and enjoy the beach in our area!

    You C.A.V.E. (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) people need to get a new hobby.

    I’ve done several of these races. I’ve seen groups do these together for their Military friends and family members who were wounded in action. I’ve seen them do it for friends and family who have or overcome cancer. I’ve seen them do it to motivate significant life changes to take up diet and exercise. These races are phenomenal and most of these people are EXACTLY the type of people who care enough about their health, life and futures to be leaders.

  13. Sherry says:

    You know what. . . I pay for my gym membership. I don’t ask the tax payers to pay for it. Not one person commenting here has a problem with the benefits of diet and exercise! Not one person has spoken out against the race itself or against tourism!

    What we do have a problem with is the WAY this deal was put together:

    1. The new tourist development head, Matt Dunn and county administrator Craig Coffey AGAIN promising our tax dollars for an event put on by a highly profitable “private” company. . . and making those promises without notification/inclusion of our elected representatives.

    This is especially disappointing since there was an outcry from our community about the lack of transparency during the negotiations when this event was scheduled to take place at the Princess Place “Nature Reserve”. Instead of actively revising the “process” for doing these kinds of deals. . . the BOCC has apparently ignored the concerns of their constituents and given these guys automatic contract extensions and raises.

    2. Apparently there were other interested parties who desired their location be considered. . . yet it appears they may not have even been part of the conversation.

    3. The event coordinators are requiring tax payer funded public services for this event. . . like police protection. . . which takes those services away from the community. . . while this “for profit” company has paid for those services in the past, at other locations.

    So, it is NOT that our community is against the race itself. . . it is just that if our tax dollars are supporting the event, we need to be involved in the details UP FRONT . . . such as choice of location, and if and how our tax dollars are to be used. . . for to support a “for profit” company and event!

  14. JLS says:

    @Sherry and anyone who is tired of the way business is conducted in this county and city, let your commissioners and councilmen know! They very clearly won’t make any changes until they hear from enough members of the public. There was such a public outcry over Princess Place the TDC/county were forced to re-work the deal and that only took a few days of public feedback. Let them know their constituents feel the deal isn’t done until they make some major changes in county/city administration. Recognize your ability to impact the decision makers! Email, call, speak to them directly and let them know, they need to take decisive actions and make certain individuals go!

  15. Sherry says:

    @ JLS. . . you are absolutely right. . . we all need to contact our commissioners directly. I did that, several times, when this event was scheduled for Princess Place. . . and so did many others. However, it appears our commissioners completely chose to ignore the underlying problem of the severe lack of transparency regarding the WAY these deals are done.

    The “bigger” issue is this. . .should we really need to constantly be contacting our commissioners about every issue? If so we are not really being well represented by them, and we need to clean house and elect commissioners with enough “back bone” to require that these “back room” deals stop completely.

    Currently, it appears to me that “non-elected” county administrator Craig Coffey is the true decision maker here.

    While I certainly am against the RRRs /Tea Party taking over our county commission, something needs to be done to move control of decision making back to our “elected” officials!

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