Flagler Beach may have ignited a new tradition for itself and the county as some 500 people turned up at Veterans Park and around the pier in the waning minutes of 2023 Sunday for the city’s inaugural surf board drop and New Year’s fireworks.
“It’s hard to describe the magic of last night,” Flagler Beach Mayor Suzie Johnston said. “Veterans Park was packed with so many residents. It was truly a family event. This was the best fireworks display I have ever seen. Not sure if it’s the nostalgia of fireworks off our pier and over the ocean, or if the technology has changed since we have had a display.” Flagler Beach last set off fireworks in July 2019, before Covid. “It was incredible with a particularly lit moon through the entire program. My Three Sons Fireworks timed it perfectly for midnight that the first shot hit the sky as the board hit the ground.” (My Three Sons is the company that produced the show.)
Commission Chairman Eric Cooley and City Manager Dale Martin devised the plan for New Year’s fireworks at midnight barely two months ago, with the City Commission appropriating 30,000 for the effort, as a way to inject a bit of energy and cheer in a city besieged by construction and more than four years without fireworks of its own.
It went off as planned, even if at first it looked like Veterans Park might be empoter than officials wished. The event started at 8 p.m., with D.J. Vern keeping the music going and “maybe 100, 125 people” turning up in those late hours on a chilly night, in Police Chief Matt Doughney’s estimate, most of them families with young children. “It was not very big, and then after 11 o’clock, it seemed like everybody decide to come see the fireworks,” Doughney said.
People had donned festive clothing and party hats and turned the huge, 8-foot-high display of 2024 that Parks and Recreation Director Tom Gillin had built in the park into a photo zone. The display was supposed to be lit only at midnight, but it proved irresistible before then, so people could memorialize the moment, with the 15-foot surfboard all lit up in varying colors above the scene.
“We came to the park at 11:45 and it was pretty crowded for an event that seemed last minute,” Carla Cline, doyenne of all things Flagler Beach, said. “The surfboard drop was awesome combined with the extra large 2024 numbering. Loads of people were taking pictures with them both. The fireworks were amazing and the grand finally was also pretty magical. The city did a great job pulling it all together. I did hear the restaurants were pretty booked with reservations too. Overall it seemed a wonderful success and an epic start to the new year.”
“Residents have been starved for fireworks for years. If last night’s crowd is any indication, we may have started a new tradition in Flagler Beach,” Commissioner Rick Belhumeur said. “Overall, it was an overwhelming success. The fireworks display was excellent. The crowd was great. People everywhere throughout and around the park.” (With barely four hours’ sleep, Belhumeur was up before dawn to catch the first sunrise this morning, over an ocean as placid as translucent glass.
Cooley had worked for weeks on the design and installation of the lights, Johnston said, and before midnight was hustling all over the park, monitoring the ropes and ensuring the timing would go off as planned: the surf board dropped in a countdown Time Square style. Patrick and Ryan Conklin had built the surf board and were there of course–with their mother, Colleen. “Flagler Beach was making our piece of history last night. It was definitely magic at midnight,” Johnston said. “It was the perfect sized party for our city. Great seeing the locals see fireworks over the ocean again our kids experience a piece of our past.”
Other than two arrests for drunk driving after midnight–one by the Florida Highway Patrol and one by Flagler Beach police–there were no issues, Doughney said. Doughney, Deputy Chief Lance Blanchette and six other officers kept an eye on things, with traffic control help from seven volunteers with Flagler County Assist. The smoothness of the event seemed to set a tone for the year ahead. At least that’s how city officials would like to see it.
“I believe that the event demonstrated the passion and excitement of this community,” Martin said. “2024 will be a busy year with so many projects prepared to move forward. I am thrilled to work with the Commissioners and the staff to keep the momentum created last night.” The construction of the Margaritaville Hotel is well under way on the lot to the west o Veterans Park, and by June the park itself may be clogged with staging equipment as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers begins the long, long-awaited beach rebuilding of 2.6 miles of shoreline south of the pier–a project more than two decades in the works.
Comparatively speaking, those projects will be minor: the demolition of the old pier and the construction of the new one, expected to begin in 2024, will be the dominant project in the city well into 2025 and possibly beyond. So the fireworks were as much celebration as commemoration, with some doubt as to whether the event could be repeated next year without a pier.
“I think the city would love to make this an annual event,” Johnston said. “Lots of factors in play for next year with dune renourishment and pier rebuild but with lots of things, if there is a will, there is a way. Dale Martin, the Fire Department, Commissioner Cooley, and staff wanted to make this happen.” So they did. Johnston added: “The restaurants that took the opportunity to stay open looked packed as well as the CRA district giving local businesses a boost on what is typically a slow night.” That had been one of the goals of the evening–to boost business in the downtown area, also referred to as the Community Redevelopment Agency zone.
Cooley had actually thought of New Year’s Eve fireworks two years ago. Different circumstances got in the way. When he finally saw it all happen, he said it was “everything we had originally envisioned it to be,” and summed it up this way: “A big economic boom opportunity to all local business during the off-season, family friendly event with a surprisingly huge attendance of kids doing limbo and hula hoops with DJ Vern, manageable crowds that our police and volunteers were easily able to keep safe. This was a great opportunity to showcase the beach, our businesses, and our city off in a safe way. All the businesses that chose to participate in the event that I got reports from were busy with large crowds so the event hit the mark for economic opportunity for the city.”
Cooley said the event was a test–both as an event in its own right, but also as an event in the context of Flagler Beach’s other iconic events. It was also a significant test of Martin’s leadership. By all accounts, he passed. “Due to the overwhelming positive feedback and success of this event, the city now has a great platform to evaluate this for future years,” he said.