Flagler Beach government is going all out to subsidize the showcasing of city businesses at the monthly First Friday event while also ensuring that the event’s manager, Vern Shank, who has complained of running a shoestring operation, makes more money and stays viable. The City Commission Thursday will consider a subsidy package that amounts to up to $30,000 a year for the operation Shank has run since 2021.
“I know we agreed as a commission to help the locals out and Vern at the same time by sponsoring the people that had local LBPRs,” Commissioner Rick Belhumeur said, “so that people would be more prone to put tables up if it was free to them. But it’s only for people that have the LBTR,” the local business tax receipt, or city business license.
It would be a sharp turn-around from the original 2021 agreement with Shank, and from the time when Flagler Broadcasting was running First Friday, going back to the days, many years ago, when then City Manager Bruce Campbell started the relationship with the radio network, whose flagship station is WNZF. Campbell had done so because First Friday was disorganized, bands weren’t showing up to play or not getting paid, and the operation needed surer management.
Flagler Broadcasting’s David Ayres, a natural-born promoter, took over, but Flagler Broadcasting was responsible for recruiting all sponsors and covering all costs, including bands, the stage, marketing and other incidental costs. After the Covid hiatus, the city wanted to take the event in a different direction. City officials had become disenchanted with First Friday seeming like a generic monthly bash that drew advertisers with no particular connection to Flagler Beach. They wanted a more down-home sort of event. Shank runs his own radio station in Flagler Beach, Surf 97.3, and proposed to realize the commissioners’ vision. They turned the event over to him.
But late last year commissioners were again disenchanted, seeing sponsors turn up again from far afield (“Why does Outback need First Friday?” one commissioner asked, though the owner of that Palm Coast franchise is local), with not as much focus on local sponsors. Shank told them that it was the only way to keep the event going, especially as he’d had to charge up his own credit card at times, to make it work. (“We were barely making it,” he told commissioners. “Absolutely honest, I swiped my credit card a few months just so that there was first Friday.”) Commissioners took pity and decided that some subsidies were in order.
In November, the commission agreed to pay Shank $100 per sponsorship table, as long as the table featured a Flagler Beach business. Non-Flagler Beach businesses, including non-profits, would continue to pay the $100 fee for such tables. It was unprecedented. But it was just the beginning.
City Manager Dale Martin has drawn up a revised contract with Shank that doubles the subsidy to $200 per table, what will be called “City Sponsored Tables,” for up to 10 tables, to be available on a first-come, first-served basis. In addition, Shank may bill the city for up to $500 per event to reimburse expenses such as band costs and other services. That cost will be defrayed by a pledge from developer Manoj Bhoola, who is building the Margaritaville Hotel downtown, of a $500 sponsorship each First Friday. It isn’t clear if the city intends to pay Shank the $200 for all 10 tables, whether or not they are used.
Shank may draw further income by selling sponsored tables of his own. The proposed revisions do not specify what non-Flagler Beach businesses may be charged, or whether there would be tiered charging between for-profit businesses and non-profit or political organizations. First Friday has been a favored location for local political parties, health and social service organizations, and the occasional cultural organization. (Martin did not responded to questions emailed Tuesday morning seeking clarification on the fee schedule.)
The city’s renewed efforts to keep First Friday going is at least in part intended to soften the effects of major construction now taking place in the block to the east of Veteran Park, as the future Margaritaville Hotel goes up, and soon-to-be major construction as the city rebuilds the pier and the Army Corps of Engineers rebuilds dunes south of the pier.
“There has been a huge, recent expression by residents and business owners of their wish that we keep First Friday on the calendar if at all possible, despite the downtown construction. There has also been ongoing interest in limiting the participating vendors to Flagler Beach businesses,” Scott Spradley, the city commissioner, an attorney and a former member of the city’s business task force, said. Referring to the proposed fee schedule and subsidies, he said: “I feel this is an excellent means to promote Flagler Beach businesses but yet it allows participation by outside businesses should there be fewer than 10 participating Flagler Beach businesses, or should the event manager (Vern Shank) have room for more than 10 vendors.”
In case there are more vendors than tables, Shank would prioritize access to vendors who are located downtown first, then to other Flagler Beach vendors, then to Flagler County vendors, then to everyone else. Food trucks will not be allowed, so as not to undercut city restaurants. But table sites could be used by food vendors.
Spradley noted the Bhoola pledge as demonstrative of “a commitment to support Flagler Beach businesses which will neighbor his hotel.”
The proposed contract is below.first-friday-contract-amendment