Flagler Beach government is inviting Palm Coast, Bunnell, Beverly Beach and the county to a joint discussion on June 21 addressing Flagler Beach’s challenges in the face of a growing onslaught of visitors on the island city.
Discussing the matter earlier this week, Flagler County commissioners were under the impression that Flagler Beach wanted to ask for money. “They’d like money,” County Administrator Heidi Petito told her commissioners, basing her summary on discussions with the Flagler Beach city manager. (See: “County All But Derides Flagler Beach’s Plea for Financial Aid to Manage Visitors’ Impact.”)
That’s not the case, Flagler Beach City Commission Chairman Eric Cooley said today.
“It’s not about asking for money. It’s about asking that we are intelligent about getting our residents to the beach in a way that doesn’t just involve putting our heads in the sand and assuming Flagler Beach will hold it,” Cooley said, “because our residents now are starting to cry out about this, because we’ve never seen this amount of people before. It’s never existed. And there’s getting to be a lot of negative pushback about it. Eventually, Flagler Beach will have to respond. Or we can just solve the problem as a county.”
It’s not a money problem. It’s an access problem, Cooley says.
Overwhelmingly, it’s visitors who use the city’s beaches, and overwhelmingly, it’s residents from across the bridge, and from palm Coast’s growing subdivisions. The city is likely past the 100,000 mark, according to census figures and trends. Those residents, Cooley says, move to Palm Coast, but do so in good measure because of the beach. That’s one of their main amenities. So they converge on the small city.
That’s not a problem, of course. But as Cooley sees it, there are different types of visitors, from local residents who make a day trip to the beach, to business travelers who see the beach as a useful amenity, to tourists, the latter two categories holding much of the purchasing power. Right now they’re all concentrated on Flagler Beach, though Flagler County has 18 miles of beachline, but not enough access points.
That’s one of the initiatives the county and other cities can cooperate on to develop, and to better manage the onslaught. If, for example, local residents interested in a day trip to the beach were better informed, or encouraged, to travel north and south of the heart of the city, and if they had places to park, the crunch would ease.
On the other hand, even if the city responded, whether by imposing parking restrictions, parking fees or spending $20 million on additional parking, Cooley said, “it still will not hold the amount of people we need to hold–to get all of these people who are moving in into the county–to the beach. So even if we spent a ton of money, we’re not going to solve the problem. We need the county to utilize all of this land that is up and down the coastline that is not even being used to actually get our own residents to the beach.”
There is little question that the 18 miles have limited access points, and what access points they do have are often overwhelmed with visitors. Flagler Beach’s State Road A1A is a parking garage on most days, but beaches north and south are only sparsely used.
“All our residents have no issues of beach access. They don’t need parking here on beachside,” Cooley said. “Everyone that needs to be able to park here in this city to get access to the beach is not from here. And there’s a business plan on that, we want our businesses to do well.” But as he has discussed on the Tourist Development Council, the county-wide council where he represents Flagler Beach, “we are going to have a direct conflict between existing Flagler Beach residents, county residents, and tourism all having access to the beach at the same time. We have that conflict coming.”
The city alone will not be able to resolve it, he said. Nor will money spent in the city, when the issue is more a matter of broad-eyed strategy, looking at the entire coast and finding ways to spread visitors. That includes re-calibrating tourism messages toward that balance.
The Flagler Beach City Commission’s letter inviting representatives from other governments to the June 21 meeting had been very general, referring only to strategy, not to specifics–nor to money–as a point of discussion. The letter, written by Flagler Beach Mayor Suzie Johnston, also invited the cities and the county to contribute agenda items or discussion. While every city and the county are attending, they all declined to contribute discussion items, and all are approaching the meeting with leeriness.
But that’s likely to to a misunderstanding of intentions, Cooley said. In his view, Petito unnecessarily conflated what sums the county is already contributing to the city in various ways with the city’s appeal for help, on the false assumption that the ask is for more money.
But even those specifics on access points are only part of the discussion, Cooley said. “We really wanted to kind of go into this meeting open minded about: what can we as a collective body, as a county, do municipality-wise, about ensuring that all residents have proper beach access?” he said. He does not want representatives to show up with minds made up, or closed, or suspicious.
“We don’t want money,” Cooley said. “Actually this meeting is the opposite of that. We want to come up with solutions that will avoid the finger-pointing.”