The Flagler Beach City Commission has agreed to an explosive idea–explosive in the best sense and, potentially, in the worst sense, as would be any proposal ending the July 4 fireworks–what has been the single-most recognizable and beloved tradition associated with Flagler Beach.
On an idea proposed by Commission Chairman Eric Cooley, all five commissioners and the mayor have agreed to eliminate the July 4 fireworks off the Flagler Beach Pier, letting Palm Coast pick up that tradition on Independence Day itself, while Flagler Beach will shift its fireworks show to New Year’s Eve. That will begin with fireworks this coming New Year’s Eve, and possibly a night parade of lit-up golf carts that evening, too.
At least on a trial basis. That trial period was not defined when the commissioners agreed to their new path at last week’s commission meeting. There was no discussion about the potential public disappointment, if not backlash, from ending a tradition that has been drawing throngs measured in the tens of thousands to the barrier island community of 5,000 year after year–until the last two, when fireworks and other July 4 activities were cancelled because of the pandemic. But officials mess with fireworks traditions at their own peril.
Flagler Beach still intends to continue with all other July 4 events, such as the Independence Day parade, the fishing tournament off the pier, all sorts of activities in veterans Park, and the return of a few more “small-town-charm” activities.
Cooley’s reasoning is two-fold: crowds are becoming too large and too unmanageable on July 4 in the confines of Flagler Beach. Eliminating the fireworks would reduce pressure on the city’s management capabilities, including reducing its needed recruitment of police forces from elsewhere to handle the day. And the December-January period is a dead zone for business, making New Year’s Eve fireworks a potentially big draw.
“I would be perfectly fine with county or Palm Coast taking over for the July fireworks,” Cooley said. “We are under an extreme heavy load, unless we get rain. This city will be under a huge crowd load. To me it is not intelligent to keep pushing that envelope until there’s, there’s an actual problem. I am of the belief that we have already exceeded our capacity to keep everyone safe.”
Based on what he’s seeing, Cooley said cities like Daytona “are having trouble keeping control of any event.” Businesses, he said, will be packed regardless on July 4. “But when they’re not packed is on New Year’s, and they desperately need help around that time.”
“It goes without saying that the original concept of fireworks was a business driver,” Cooley said. (The fireworks date back decades. It isn’t actually clear when or why they were started, though the now-defunct Flagler Chamber of Commerce was involved in them at least since the 1990s, if not earlier.) “So my proposal is to do fireworks, but to do fireworks at a time of year when they are needed most for businesses. And that’s in the wintertime. New Year’s.” But nothing other than the fireworks would change. “This kind of brings back that whole charm,” he said. “Let all the commercialized insanity Disney World style stuff go to Palm Coast for that day.” Meaning the fireworks.
Cooley cited last Christmas’s “Turn Flagler Beach Blue” initiative, which drafted many businesses into stringing (mostly) blue lights as a draw, along with lights strung along the pier and in Veterans Park. “If you look in the general geographic area there’s absolutely nothing of real significance going on as far as New Year’s goes, minus European village, if you want to call it a big significance, and there’s nothing else,” Cooley said. “This has a potential to be the very big keystone event that is needed for the area, a gigantic business driver, and it ties into the initiatives that we’re currently doing to try to get folks here that time of year. The temperatures of that time of year are conducive to not having a all-day drunk-fest on the beach, which takes a huge strain off the city. I think that if we are going to set off fireworks, which we still have–TDC still has that money–that would be the ideal time to do it.” TDC is the Tourist Development Council that underwrites the cost of July 4 fireworks in Flagler Beach and Palm Coast, usually a $15,000 expense in each case.
Then came the unanimity from fellow-commissioners.
“I think it’s an excellent idea,” Commissioner Ken Bryan said. “For the first time I actually came downtown on the 4th of July,” he said of this past holiday weekend, when the city had for the second year in a row cancelled its parade and fireworks because of the covid pandemic. “My wife and I actually had breakfast downtown here, and I thought it was manageable. It seemed like people enjoyed themselves a lot more without large crowds. I think it’s a good idea, it’s worth trying, anyway.”
Commissioners Jane Mealy and Deborah Phillips agreed, both of them enthusiastically, so did Mayor Suzie Johnston. “I think every business would love it,” Johnston said.
“As a business owner, people are tapped out after Christmas with their money, so this would be terrific,” Commissioner Deborah Phillips said. Cooley is also a business owner. He owns the 7-Eleven downtown, on the ocean. He said in the past there’s been discussions with the now-defunct chamber about trying to improve the business climate in the off season. Palm Coast officials in recent months had also met with the Flagler Beach mayor to kick around ideas about shifting the July 4 fireworks to Palm Coast entirely, rather than splitting them between Flagler Beach and Palm Coast over two days.
“I don’t want to speak as just one business owner member of the community,” Cooley said, “but I’ve heard time and time again that we have a lot of businesses in that strip that’s right in front of the pier, there’s a lot of them that close. They can’t manage it.” He said it was time to think of a more practical approach.
Commissioner Rick Belhumeur said he liked the concept, but he was concerned about the Holiday Parade, scheduled in early to mid-December. Johnston said that parade should not be ended, but a second parade should be added on New Year’s Eve, and that one should be a “light-up golf cart parade.”
“We’re looking at resetting some things anyway, we’ve talked about resetting First Friday, and the old town charm,” Bryan said, referring to the commission’s recent decision to refocus First Friday events on local businesses. When you see the old towns having the Fourth of July, they have parades and they had parties and things like this, they didn’t necessarily have fireworks, but it was the old town charm that probably originally started here in Flagler Beach anyway. So I guess what we’re saying is that we’re resetting a number of venues in the city, based on the population and based on the way that the city is growing itself. I think it’s a great opportunity, it’s a great time to do it.”
“And resetting in a way it’s going to benefit us, not neighboring cities,” Cooley said. “As a resident I feel exploited, with some of those events.”