The Flagler Beach City Commission will resume its popular First Friday events at Veterans Park in the heart of the city starting in September, a year and a half after the event was suspended due to the pandemic. September 3 would be the first return of First Friday.
After debating which radio-station sponsor to go with, commissioners were leaning toward Vern Shank, the DJ better known as DJ Vern who runs Surf Radio and who’s provided entertainment at First Friday events in the past, but had no longer been its chief sponsor. That role had been filled by Flagler Broadcasting’s Beach 92.7, which paid “several hundred dollars” for the rights, according to Mayor Suzie Johnston. The commission will reconsider and finalize the choice at a meeting on July 22, giving Flagler Broadcasting a chance to make its own pitch.
Johnston and the city manager had outlined what amounted to a new set of rules for First Friday, which the commission largely approved last Thursday.
“I know what WNZF did for us. If Vern could do the same thing that would be great,” Flagler Beach Commissioner Jane Mealy said. (WNZF is the flagship station of Flagler Broadcasting, often referred to interchangeably with the network’s other stations, like Beach 92.7). “I prefer to keep it in town.”
The reason for the switch: The city wants to refocus the event on city businesses, city sponsors, and benefits that primarily go to the city, in line with the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency. First Friday was developed as part of the CRA’s mission to revitalize downtown. To that end, the city would shoot for a 75-25 split between sponsors, with local sponsors accounting for 75 percent of the share.
“It came off the tracks and it became something that was not reflective of the culture of our city,” City Commission Chairman Eric Cooley said of how the event had evolved before the pandemic, under Beach 92’s aegis. “I have nothing against that station and the folks that have been doing it. But what I find to be most important is the entire point of First Friday being a local business focused event is the entire reason why it started.” He added: “What got us to this point is the focus of the previous folks doing it is different than what we want. That’s my personal opinion.”
For example, commissioners were concerned about the “free rein” Beach 92 was given, as Mealy put it, to include car sales, not necessarily local bands and big food trucks from out of town. “The place was inundated with food trucks and none of them were from this city, and no one left that area to go patronize our businesses,” Cooley said.
“You have sticks and bricks businesses that pay in taxes that support this whole thing,” City Manager William Whitson said, “and yet they’re getting competed against by people that really just show up for the moment. Take the money and leave. So the idea is to reverse it.” So in future any promotional activities from the stage, or even the way games will be designed (like a treasure hunt), everything will be designed to not necessarily keep people in the park, but encourage them to visit shops. There used to be BBQ contests, chips and dip contests and the like: commissioners want those revived.
No one representing Flagler Broadcasting was in attendance. But Shank was. “In all fairness, I believe WNZF and David Ayres should be heard,” he said. “I’m the only one here today but I do believe, you know he’s a musical comrade of mine.” But he also said his services as available and ready.
“We’re almost obligated to have preferential treatment for that for our local vendor over an outside vendor,” Cooley said. “If they can do it, is it necessary to bring in the other station and go through the process if our own local one is capable of doing everything then?”
Mealy said it was only fair to bring in Flagler Broadcasting and make its own proposal. Cooley worried about “dragging this out” and not pull off a September start. The city manager said a request for proposal could be issued this week, possibly requiring a special meeting of the city commission. When the commission discussed the matter at its last meeting on June 24, it was evident Shank had the inside track.
In fact, the city’s new approach–more local, with Shank leading the way–is just what Ayres was looking for. “I’m all in favor of it,” he said in an interview today. He said Beach 92.7 was brought on to help with First Friday nine years ago by then-City Manager Bruce Campbell. At the time, the event was disorganized, bands wouldn’t show up, musical acts would turn into improvised jam sessions, and the whole thing needed a more professional approach. “He asked us to help out since we do events, so we did, for nine years,” Ayers said. Flagler Broadcasting hired the bands, screened them, did the advertising. “The city would bring the food vendors in, so it wasn’t us.”
Even had Ayers been in attendance, he’d have said the same thing: “I think they’re just ready to go back to, from what I hear, go back to more of a small town feel and not a bigger production like we were doing, and Vern is great,” Ayres said. “He can do it, emcee it. We weren’t making any money at it, we were just doing it because they asked us to. I’m like great, I’m 100 percent behind Vern.”
“I believe all of us in the same way have thought about how local is the most important thing that this city has to offer,” Shank, an entertainer for some 33 years, said. “We’ve all seen the early posters, and it was kind of like at the top would be a small picture of the band, and then there would be like 30 sponsors or maybe more, all their logos, all over. And those are the people that need help within the city. Those are the people that need to drive the business to First Friday, or I should say the folks that attend First Friday, go to those businesses.” He added: “If it was me or if it was WNZF, either way, it just needs to be dialed back.”
The concern among commissioners was that Shank might not be able to handle the full burden of a sponsorship. But he sat through the commission’s outline of its point-by-point regulations and requirements for the event’s resumption. He assured commissioners that he could handle it.
There was a debate over political groups’ presence at First Friday–what Mealy described as “one of our major problems.” But that raised dicey issues that Drew Smith, the city attorney, immediately addressed: “We just cannot put ourselves in a position where we are making any type of ‘this speech before that,'” he said. “If you’re not selling something, then you’re engaging in speech.” The commission agreed not to ban political groups–it would be legally problematic, if not outright illegal–but they decided to have a “limited number of tables,” which would be provided on a first-come, first served basis.
Revenue generated from the event will be reinvested first in the running of the event itself. If there are left-over dollars, they’ll be split equally between the sponsors and the city.