Before Covid, Flagler Beach’s popular First Friday had, at least in city commissioners’ eyes, turned into a generic event that neither favored or benefited local businesses nor felt like much of a Flagler Beach thing. When it returned in the fall of 2021, after its Covid quarantine, it was under new management and with a new mission. The city wanted it re-focused exclusively on local businesses.
The crowds returned. But the focus hasn’t worked out quite as planned. Local businesses have not been participating. Numerous non-local businesses, including franchises such as Outback and Chick-fil-A, advocacy, political and religious organizations, have. It was as if the very thing the city aimed to reverse when it hired Vern Shank, the owner of Surf 97.3 in town, as its new First Friday manager, was happening again.
“Why does Outback need First Friday? It’s a national chain. Why does Outback need to come to Flagler Beach?” Commissioner Jane Mealy asked. Mayor Suzie Johnston said the franchise is owned by a Palm Coast resident. That made no difference to Mealy: “We were supposed to be helping our businesses,” she said.
The Flagler Beach City Commission is again directing a First Friday make-over: more focus on live music, no more food trucks, subsidies to encourage local businesses to attend, and continuing fees for non-locals setting up tents.
From now on, the city will pay Shank the $100 feel for merchants to participate, as long as the merchants are Flagler Beach based. The merchants will also have preferential treatment, filling up slots. Slots left over would go to non-city vendors, including advocacy organizations, but they’d have to pay their own $100 fee every time they want to show up. The approach is a reflection of an ongoing challenge: First Friday is not serving enough as a pipeline of business to local merchants, as the city commission intends it to be.
“Since the city is going to be paying for the event anyways if there’s a shortage of money then the city would just chip in what that financial loss,” Commission Chairman Eric Cooley, who proposed the $100 subsidy, said.
That was all music to Shank’s ears, because the way the discussion had gone initially put the viability of his operation in question: led by Mealy and what City Manager Dale Martin thought his commissioners were interested in, the city was trending toward a more purely, if not a more dogmatically, Flagler Beach affair. That may have made it harder for Shank to keep running it. He tried to make his case to the commission Thursday evening–cautiously at first, then much more explicitly: keeping it exclusively local won’t work.
When he took over management in September 2021, it started as just that: an all-local affair. But he revealed Thursday evening that it was very difficult going. “We were barely making it,” Shank told the commission. “Absolutely honest, I swiped my credit card a few months just so that there was first Friday.” He said there weren’t enough local businesses willing to participate. So the event grew outward again from there, drawing in other businesses from across the bridge. “Let me tell you we did our darndest to make sure we tried to get everybody involved in the city,” he said. It didn’t work.
The City Commission imagines First Friday as a big draw for its downtown businesses, its restaurants especially, which is why it doesn’t like to see non-Flagler Beach food establishments setting up shop at First Friday, whether intents or in food trucks. Shank sympathizes. But the crowd didn’t necessarily see it that way. “I’ve got bombarded to the max, like kicked in the face and knocked down by our local people that attend this: Where’s the food? Where’s the burgers, what we used to have always?” he said. “It’s now: we want you to go to the restaurant. ‘Oh, this sucks.’ Excuse my language.” So Shank still tried to bring in some food, including Outback and Chick-fil-A, among others, and when a second chicken-sandwich business set up shop, there were complaints from businesses to commissioners.
That got the city administration thinking. Martin’s idea is to refocus the event on live music, because that’s what people enjoy most. “We seem to have gone a little sideways with vendors, with food trucks, with things like that,” he said. “If it really is about the music, then why don’t we just do music?” He asked Shank for a four-month proposal covering March, April, May and June along those lines. (After June, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ beach renourishment project in the city will be creating a different dynamic in town, temporarily.) The music would start at 7 p.m. instead of 6, so as not to interfered with visitors to First Friday a chance to go to a restaurant and have dinner first.
Mealy liked the idea, as did–initially, anyway–Commissioners Scott Spradley and Rick Belhumeur, though both Belhumeur and Spradley later swayed more to Shank’s side. Commissioner James Sherman was conflicted. And Cooley was opposed. “I’m going to grenade the discussion,” Cooley said.
“This entire discussion started because one person selling chicken sandwiches didn’t like a second vendor coming in selling chicken sandwiches. That’s why this started,” Cooley said. “I have yet to hear any complaints about businesses being at First Friday. Sure over the years, some political tents have yelled at other political tents. Well, if you put Republicans next to Democrats, that’s what’s going to happen. That’s not exactly a surprise there. probably wasn’t the best idea to do that. But to change the entire culture of what First Fridays’ purpose is without having real extensive sit down or feedback from the business community, I don’t know if that’s wise, especially now.”
Cooley is also concerned about paying $10,000 to $15,000 a year more per year just to have music in the park.
However, Mealy said, local businesses are not participating. Those that are, are religiously or politically oriented, she said, a bit too broadly: in fact, numerous, non-religious or non-political advocacy organizations attend, such as the Humane Society or Flagler Oars, the addiction-counseling organization, and FlaglerCares, the social service coordinating agency. But local, private businesses have been scarce, Mealy said, with some months with just one business in attendance, some months just two. “So it’s not us that’s changing it. It’s the businesses themselves that have changed that,” Mealy said.
Shank cautioned commissioners about restricting booths or reducing the number of participants, regardless of where they come from. “I just feel strongly that it would change the whole basis of why it was ever started,” he said. “It might seem miniscule, but it’s a big change from what we’ve always done from the very beginning of time since this event has started, even with other regimes doing it. Would it be easy, and could I say, oh, yeah, let’s just do it, rock ‘n roll. But as a community-minded person I just feel like we should keep the people involved in the community as much as possible–Flagler Beach, and Flagler County as much as possible, and then helps to offset some things that we as a group don’t do too well with financially.”
City Attorney Drew Smith also cautioned the commission about doing anything that could be interpreted as subjective judgments between one advocacy or political organization and another. “Once we allow speech, we’re open to all speech,” Smith said. “So we can say ‘only merchants,’ but we can’t say ‘only some speech.'” In other words, the city could not allow just the Humane Society but not a political group, as both are considered speech or advocacy. Similarly, the city would run into trouble if it was too restrictive on vendors, “because Vern wasn’t able to cover his costs,” Smith said.
To Spradley, the Flagler Beach preference should prevail. But if vendor slots aren’t filled by Flagler Beach businesses, then it should be opened to outside businesses, including advocacy. “The positive side is it’s been used for public outreach for hurricane victims numerous times,” Cooley said. “The Girl Scouts are there, the Humane Society’s there. How many dogs have been adopted, and cats, back when it was over here? There’s tons of real estate agents there, there’s tons of other businesses, pictures, and who knows what.”
When the commission opened the floor to public input, it heard what Shank had told it: “I love the music,” one new resident who’d attended the last three First Fridays said. “I love the local vendors. I love the food. Things that I feel are lacking perhaps are, I would like to see more food and beverage options.”
Dennis Bayer, the Flagler Beach attorney who’s now representing the coming Margaritaville Hotel, said he would work with the hotel possibly to come up with a local sponsorship, by way of good will. Others who spoke like the event the way it is.
In the end, the commission landed around Cooley’s suggestion, with Smith, the attorney, amending it, so that the city would pay the $100 fee for local businesses as a straight subsidy, rather than have Shank eat the cost. Whether more local businesses will show up, and keep showing up, is the unanswered question.