Last Updated: Friday, 7:34 p.m.
The Flagler Beach City Commission learned Thursday evening that the city missed out on up to $739,000 in grant funds from the Flagler County Tourist Development Council–a grant that had been available since January 2021. The city was afforded an extension. It missed that deadline too.
“Applicants have a year and a half to get their ducks in a row,” Flagler County Tourism Director Amy Lukasik said. Lukasik and her staff help applicants get those ducks in a row–if applicants ask for help. Flagler Beach did not.
Palm Coast applied, and as the only applicant, its project–building pickleball courts at the city’s tennis center off Belle Terre Parkway, where it hopes to draw regional tournaments–was scored high enough to be awarded the entire pot. The grant cycle is available once every two years, not once every year, as Flagler Beach officials thought Thursday.
All is not lost for Flagler Beach. The TDC grant goes before the tourism council for recommendation at its July 20 meeting. The council could decide then to go with the full recommended award to Palm Coast. Or it could choose to reduce the award and leave some money on the table, and re-open the grant cycle for that left-over. Either way, the recommendation–which is not binding–then goes before the Flagler County Commission at its Aug. 15 meeting for ratification. Again, commissioner could then decide to alter the grant the same way, potentially re-opening the window for Flagler Beach, if for a lesser amount. But it could also stick with its tourism bureau’s recommendation, as it usually does, so as not to second-guess its own administration.
Failing all that, the next grant cycle opens in January, when the TDC will decide how much money will be in the pot for that round. It is likely to be more, as revenue from the tourism sales surtax (paid for overwhelmingly by visitors) has increased. But that money will not be awarded until 18 months hence–two years from now–essentially putting Flagler Beach behind by that much, and denying Flagler Beach a crack at two successive rounds of grants.
The failure of the city administration to meet the deadline is a mirror image of its failure to secure in time a contracted booking with its usual fireworks vendor for the July 4 display. Flagler Beach will have no fireworks this year, and potentially for the next several years, as it rebuilds its pier. (See: “Flagler Beach Could Have Had Its July 4 Fireworks Had It Not Waited Until April 24 to Book the Show.”)
It’s not as consequential as missing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars of grant funding. But it reflects equally on an administration that appears to be less in control of basic managerial steps, despite recurring reminders.
“Our last meeting there was a representative here from TDC reminding us about the grant process, and then we had a meeting with TDC. Did we apply for the $700,000 grant?” Commissioner Eric Cooley asked Whitson Thursday evening during the meeting.
“No, it just wasn’t enough time for me to apply,” Whitson said.
There was a pause, the kind of silence that evokes pins not only dropping but stinging.
“I talked to Mr. Whitson about that as well,” Commission Chairman Ken Bryan said, breaking the silence. “I think we just kind of missed the boat because there was a lot of stuff going on. I think it’s incumbent on us this time that we should start looking at capital projects that we can start marketing right now and be ready with the next cycle.” Bryan serves on the TDC as Flagler Beach’s representative there.
“I feel bad we missed it,” Whitson said, “but you know, by the time we started talking about it, there was just, there were days before the deadline, and couldn’t do it.”
That is not accurate.
The city commission voted to hire Whitson in February. He started in May. Lukasik first met him at a meet and greet that month, when the grant was among her items she discussed. She then met with Whitson and his new assistant, Katie Dockhorn, last March 30, and discussed the grant again, offering her help to shepherd the city’s application through the process. “When I met with her and Mr. Whitson,” Lukasik said, I reminded her again of this program.”
After the meeting, she sent an email to Dockhorn thanking her for the meeting, offering to meet again two weeks later, and sending her the link to the TDC’s capital project grant information and application. “Take a look and let me know if the city is interested in applying and we can go from there,” Lukasik wrote.
There was no application.
On June 9, John Lulgjuraj, co-owner of Oceanside Bar and Grill in Flagler Beach and a voting member of the Tourist Development Council, stood before the Flagler Beach City Commission at the end of a 4-hour meeting, and reminded the city: “I talked to the director earlier last week,” Lulgjuraj said of Lukasik. “Reminded me that the capital grant fund is open. There’s a deadline as of tomorrow. Luckily I asked the director for an extension if it’s possible, just to remind the city and staff if there’s an opportunity for grant–$739,000 for capital funds, every two years.”
Lulgjuraj told commissioners that Palm Coast had applied for the full amount. “But, we got a little bit of an extension,” he said. “So at the end of the day, it has to happen as soon as possible. So if there’s something that you guys can do, if you need help with it, obviously we’re here. But I just want to remind [you] that the city has an opportunity for free money and usually I get attention when free money is offered.”
There was no application.
Reference to the missed deadline was brief Thursday. But in public comments, Scott Fox, owner of Tortugas Restaurant and a Flagler Beach resident, called it “unfathomable that that we can let that get out of our hands.” Rick Belhumeur, the former city commissioner said “we blew it just don’t get it it’s huge. It’s a lot of money.”
Bryan, the commission chairman, sought to soften the blow later in the meeting. “Every year this is something that we can apply for and you have to look at capital projects and other projects,” Bryan said. “Not pointing fingers at anyone. That’s not what I’m here to do all. As we move forward, we’ll do a better job to make sure that we qualify for some of these grants that are available. It’s not just TDC grants.”
Scott Spradley, the Flagler Beach attorney who vice-chairs the city’s planning board and had chaired the city’s committee on July 4 fireworks, had been highly critical of the administration’s misstep in that regard. He was at the meeting Thursday, but addressed the TDC grant only afterward. “My concern as I heard the city manager acknowledge he failed to meet the TDC Grant filing deadline was ‘here we go again,'” Spradley said. “This is why there will be no 4th of July fireworks in Flagler Beach. That was another failure by the city administration to make timely arrangements. I don’t like the pattern. Plus, each of these failures results in a black eye to the City Commission but undeservedly so in my opinion. The City Commission issues orders and is only as good as the capability of the city administration to carry out those orders. Lately, those orders are not being carried out. This is a problem from my view as a resident, a business owner and a concerned member of the Flagler Beach community.”
In a brief interview Friday evening, several hours after this article published, Bryan said the TDC grant in question can’t be awarded in a void, to any project the city conceives, but only to a planned, “shelf-ready project.” For example, there are no estimates for a boardwalk reconstruction the grant application could be tied to, and pier construction is still not yet designed, so it wouldn’t have been as simple as filing an application. “It wasn’t that we dropped the ball, we tried,” he said, but assuming there’d been such a possibility, he said “the entire commission is responsible.” He was critical of what he saw as the “grandstanding” that accompanied Thursday’s revelation.
The TDC grant for capital projects used to be an annual award until two years ago, when the rules in place limited applicants to a maximum of $150,000, which they could get a maximum of two times within a five-year window. When the TDC changed the rules ahead of the 2021 cycle, it scrapped all the limits: a municipality could apply every two years, and the amount of money available would depend on revenue generated, and grant amounts determined by the TDC. The rules were also changed to allow non-profits to apply.
In January 2021, the TDC elected to settle on the $739,000 pot, or 80 percent of what was in the capital fund pot overall. The rest would remain as reserves.
While there is still a chance for some of the money to go Flagler Beach’s way, pending the decisions of the TDC (Bryan will not have a vote on that matter, since it would be a conflict) and the County Commission, “it’s roulette,” Lukasik said. “You do take the chance.”