The Flagler County Tourist Development Board on Wednesday approved a $40,000 public subsidy for a private writers’ conference at the Hammock Beach Resort with little evidence that the subsidy will pay dividends, or detailed documentation showing where and how conference-goers would benefit the local economy. Rather, the subsidy is designed to defray the cost of their room rates, transportation and food in what amounts to an indirect bribe for positive press.
It is among the largest-ever such subsidy to any organization in the TDC’s history. (An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the conference subsidy as the largest: Nine years ago the TDC approved a $50,000 appropriation for a Bobby Ginn golf tournament at the Hammock Beach Resort. The tournament organizer withdrew the request in the face of public protest, only for the county commission to appropriate $100,000. Ginn went bankrupt two years later.) The TDC voted 7-1 to appropriate the money to the conference with only a very general budget from Matt Dunn, who heads the county’s tourism office and was responsible for submitting a budget, as county policy requires. The TDC did so without an agenda for the four-day conference, even though the county policy requires “a detailed description of the event/project to receive the funding.” And it did so with Tim Digby, the general manager of the Hammock Beach Resort, voting with the majority, even though the resort had been part of the county’s team to bid for the conference, and the resort will be directly benefiting from a large portion of the $40,000 allocation in the form of subsidized room rates and catering. (Digby did not respond to an email asking about the vote.)
It was the first time Dunn was submitting the request to the TDC for the $40,000, which would subsidize the annual Florida Outdoor Writers Association annual conference, to be held at the Hammock Beach Resort next September. The conference is expected to bring about 125 writers, according to Dunn. The benefit to Flagler County, he said, would be realized through the articles and blog posts those writers would subsequently produce, on fishing, boating, kayaking, shooting, archery, bird-watching and such activities and featuring Flagler County.
But the expected windfall is speculative: Dunn had no evidence to show that even a portion of the subsidy would be recouped or that subsidizing the conference would be a substantial benefit to the county in the long run, as it will more certainly be to the resort. He provided one tangible example of a food writer’s article about Flagler venues, written for the Orlando Sentinel in February, that he said was picked up by “over 200 newspapers in the United States.” But that proved largely inaccurate.
Dunn, the director of tourism development for Flagler County, had previously worked in a similar capacity in Gainesville: that’s where he met and worked with the head of the writers’ association previously. As part of winning the bid for the conference this year, Dunn won a $9,500 appropriation from the TDC last year to underwrite the writers’ association banquet, which he said was a requirement to win over the conference this year, so in essence this year’s subsidy will be at least $46,000 (as the banquet cost came under budget).
Dunn referred to the writers of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association as “journalists.” But the association is careful not to refer to its writers as such—as journalists who follow basic ethics of the trade will not accept to have any of their costs underwritten by the organizations or concerns they cover—but as “communicators.” It is relatively easy and not demanding to be one such “communicator” in good standing.
Bill McGuire, the Palm Coast City Council member and a member of the TDC board—which is split between elected officials and tourism-related business representatives—was the lone dissenter in the vote. His objection: the appropriation is too large, too speculative and too lacking in specifics. “I’m not comfortable with it,” McGuire said before the meeting. “If you can’t show me statistical data that supports your request, I’m not likely to get behind it. In other words your opinion plus a dollar will buy a cup of coffee.”
County policy is intended to ensure that that data is provided council members so they can make an informed choice. McGuire was not made more comfortable by Dunn’s presentation. “I respect your professional judgment but it’s still somewhat speculative to put $40,000 into an event that we put $9,500 into last year. Is there any kind of a compromise?” he asked.
Dunn had no compromise. “Well, you know, again, we’re still coming up with the agenda, I can’t tell you specifically what the bottom line is going to be at this point as we’re still in the planning process,” Dunn said, then doing what he’s done before when lacking more convincing data: he put a rhetorical gun to the council’s head: “What I can tell you is it is time absolutely to get the event contract done if we are going to host this, and if we are not going to host it we need to give this association time to find another destination.”
“When would you envision having the whole financial package put together?” McGuire asked.
“I hope to have that finalized within the next couple of months,” Dunn said. “I can’t imagine that it would go on any longer than that and then we could probably give you more of a true number, but in our process we must have the funding based on what we’ve negotiated, finalized, first, before I’m allowed to go to the event contract phase.”
Earlier in the meeting, he’d told council members that because of the nature of the grant, it did not require a budget submission. Dunn refused to return calls or emails, but wrote, through the county’s public information officer: “Under the grant program process, organizations are required to submit event budgets. Under the discretionary event funding process organizations are not required to submit event budgets, therefore they have not been included in the TDC/BOCC meeting packet materials in the past.”
A soft bribe for good press from an outdoors writers’ conference.
The county commission passed the ordinance controlling discretionary funding last year. It’s unequivocal regarding budgets, and does not make a distinction regarding organizations’ requiremments: “Each request presented to the TDC shall include a detailed line item budget for the event/project and provide an estimated Return on Investment (‘ROI’) report.” The ROI estimate was included (and shows a return on investment of negative 69 percent). So was a budget from Dunn himself, not the writers’ association, and not a detailed one.
“He did have a small one-line example of the cost but it wasn’t laid out like a typical budget would be, it’s true,” Barbara Revels, who was chairing the TDC meeting for the first time Wednesday, said. (Dunn submitted general terms that showed a $5,000 subsidy for writers’ hotel rooms and $22,000 for catering, for example. TDC budget requirements are customarily far more rigorous.) “I would say that I don’t know about the history of the board’s knowledge of the policy but for me I did not have the policy in front of me and staff was stating that under the grant program that that was not necessary,” Revels said.
Craig Coffey, the county administrator, said the budget was never intended to be more detailed when the ordinance was written. “What it’s designed to do is to give a general idea for the approving entity, this is how we’re going to generally spend the money, so it’s not an end all, be all cast in stone,” Coffey said. “It is general, but if you look at a county budget, our line item budget is general in the sense that it says, equipment repairs,” rather than outlining the specific types of equipment that is to be repaired or replaced, he said.
Revels voted for the appropriation, likening it to her experience on the county’s economic development board, which had sponsored a “site selector” conference knowing it would not produce immediate results, but betting that it would produce returns over a three to five year period as site selectors talk about Flagler elsewhere. (That has not yet happened; nor has that board’s 2013 purchase, for $15,000, of ad space on a billboard near Times Square in New York produced a single documented lead.)
Asked about Hammock Beach Resort General Manager Tim Digby’s vote for the appropriation and its appearance of a conflict of interest, Revels said: “I have that same request in to the attorney’s office, because in my mind I questioned it, but I know that all these hoteliers have been sitting on that board, voting on items that usually in general, the events they’re approving, they know they’re going to have… in that case it’s very clear that they would be the host facility and so I was scratching my head on that.”
Coffey, too, was uncomfortable with Digby taking part in the vote. “We’re going to look into it and at the very least we’re going to provide some clarifying guidance to our TDC members,” Coffey said. “It would have passed anyway. When you do something that benefits all hotels, that’s not an issue. When you’re the host hotel, it puts it in a different light.”
The TDC discussed the appropriation for just 18 minutes, including Dunn’s presentation, with some of the discussion focusing on the expected benefit of the conference: that writers will produce positive stories about the county that will then encourage visitors to travel here. But other than one example of such a story getting disseminated, Dunn could not point to other documented benefits, even though the tourism office has annually done what the tourism industry calls “fam tours,” or familiarization tours,” and what are more accurately referred to as junkets that pay for writers’ tours and accommodations in exchange for positive stories. The tourism office has spent several thousand dollars a year on such tours, with minor returns.
“It’s a big chunk of money for us to go, ‘we trust you,’” Tom Grimes, general manager at the Hilton Garden Inn in Palm Coast, told Dunn. “And I think it would be a wonderful exercise over the year and a half that happens or this follows, that if you see some of these articles, gees, share them with us, and that’ll make us all feel better, because as I say it’s a big chunk to swallow.”
The one article Dunn referred to was a February article in the Orlando Sentinel about Flagler County, highlighting several local attractions. “I think we paid $18,000 as a media buy to have that article appear in the Orlando Sentinel,” Dunn told the council. “Over 200 other newspapers in the United States picked up that article and republished that in their own newspapers. So that’s where we’re seeing the spin-off happen of all of these, the benefit of having these travel writers come in and help us spread the word.”
It is highly unlikely that the Sentinel paid anywhere near that sum for an article written by one of its own writers or correspondents—a “media buy” is for advertising—or that it would pay an ad agency to run an article presented in its news and features pages. (The Sentinel’s features editor did not return a call.) The story appeared in six other outlets between early March and Early April, and none others since, according to the Newsbank database, which includes 3,600 news sources.
Dunn forwarded an email listing some 20 links to a different article that he said first was posted in mid-November, and was expected to appear in 200 newspapers. None of the many links tested worked. “I expect most of these to be broken links as newspaper outlets don’t keep links live for long,” Dunn said.
But the story appeared in not a single newspaper in the country included in the database, including newspapers listed in Dunn’s email. The story was provided by the Tribune Content Agency (and was listed in the database as such), but appears not to have been picked up by actual newspapers.
None of that information was presented to TDC board members.
The $40,000 appropriation is not a done deal: the Flagler County Commission must sign off on it. But it is expected to do so soon.
Heading North says
You have GOT to be kidding me!!!!
Dan potter says
Anything stupid thing can be done in the name of attracting tourism to an area. It sounds great to put forth tourism accumulated dollars to support a speculative event without knowing the outcome, but, great for who.
I am appalled that members of the county commission put their John Henry to a resolution that would expend discretionary
money on such a vague event. Maybe, just maybe, they need to be more conservative with tourism dollars. If those dollars were their dollars would they would work with more constraint.
The fact that tourism is usually not an integral part of city or county government it gives those agencies a free checkbook to spend whatever they want with no guidelines. It’s the county commission portion of TDC that should have put the brakes on.
All across the United States tourism taxes accumulate at staggering rates since there are no mandatory expenses other than maybe a capital expense in building a convention center and general utility and maintenance costs. The director normally makes about three times the compensation that would be given to people with the same qualifications. The board establishes that compensation and it is generous.
It is not uncommon to see tourism commissions take trips to Vegas and other high dollar destinations to attend conventions that some never attend.
That 40K could have been spent promoting economic development. But of course that is no fun.
OMG, Dunn strikes again!
All of this trash talk about spending OUR tax monies on gifts to, who? To what and for what? Why can’t these elected officials of Flagler County spend OUR money on OUR roads? Out of that forty THOUSAND dollars I think that a very few HUNDRED dollars would make Mahogany Blvd. a much less hazardous road for so many people. Such as school kids, pedestrians, mail delivery people and etc. Just a few HUNDRED dollars to make a 3 mile road safer for EVERYONE who uses it! All of my bitching has fallen upon deaf ears with re: to Mahogany Blvd. Those natural expansion joints are jarring ‘knives’ that jut up out of the roadway and destroy the suspensions of all vehicles pounding over them, INCLUDING the dozens of trips a day the Flagler County dump trucks travel down Mahogany Blvd. to get to the county’s FILL STORAGE area at the north west corner of Daytona North. I say that we need to elect people who actually have us at heart. People who will listen and do something about complaints that are very obviously sincere. All my respect is for the Flagler County Road and Bridge Department. It’s not their fault that I’m bitching. It’s ALL on the shoulders of the BOCC of Flagler County for not FUNDING road repair because they would rather throw it away on gambles.
Mr. McGuire was the ONLY one who had any sense in this matter! What a rip off for us taxpayers. Flagler county is giving a practically free luxury vacation to approximately 125 writers who may or may not write nice things about FC that probably very few people will read anyway. Just like the sign in NYC a few years ago.
Ever since Dunn and McLaughlin have come aboard on the TDC, there has been way to much free wheeling spending and shame on Ms Revels for learning a lesson fro, the $15,000 NY sign disaster, which brought Flagler County NOTHING.
Coffey and the commissioners complain about money, yet they always find enough to pay for unprofitable things. Dunn must be a very happy man making almost $100k from TDC and also money from his business which he was supposed to give up due to conflict of interest.
The TDC funds come from the 4 percent since 2010 https://flaglerlive.com/12979/bed-tax-flagler-county-4-percent/ bed tax, paid by tourist staying in our FC and cities hotels.
Maybe by now the total of the 4% bed tax from hotels is over $728,000/year that was last I recall. Matt Dunn pay is one of the expenses paid from that fund (I believe) the rest is supposed to be used in advertising and promoting tourism to our county as the above FL 2010 editorial above describes. Very often we have seeing thru the years (Ginn) Hammock Beach Resort get a good chunk of the benefit. Once their main Golf Tournament was sponsored to the tune of, can’t remember if was $180,000 or double that. I figure that maybe Hammock Beach Resort is the biggest contributor in the county to the 4% bed tax and maybe that is the reason for the reinvestment of TDC on their property events? Because the mirage that these wine and dined Florida Writers Assoc. attendants will promote FC tourism is just the same old never proven success! Just a good way to show themselves who is who on someone else’s pocket.
I can see Tom Grimes from Hilton Garden Inn not too happy of the give out, but like I said could be that (Ginn) Hammock Beach is the biggest contributor to the yearly revenue ? This only TDC knows.
Also the funds originated by the 4% bed tax can’t be used for any other purpose like paving roads or helping the homeless or whatever. The TDC bed tax revenue is to be used to promote and advertise tourism only and benefit in reinvesting in the very sources (hospitality) that generate the revenue. Florida is a tourist based economy state and while promoting tourism not only they benefit hotels, but also restaurants and shops were visitors spend their visiting dollars. Tourism Is always better than revenue source from certain contaminating manufacturing. The assignment/distribution of the FC hospitality generated TDC 4% bed tax is up to the TDC board and I would add its biggest contributors.
STOP THE MADNESS!
Dan potter says
Hopefully this total disrespect for tourism dollars will not just evaporate. There should be some feet on the carpet to explain the screwed up logic in throwing 40K away. I can possibly see the local businessmen on the TDC voting for this but the County Commissioners!
Bill McQuire should be given a medal for being a realist that can’t be hoodwinked.
I have been a columnist for years and I would be happy to write a few lines promoting tourism in Flagler County in exchange for a free vacation in a luxury resort.
Barbara Revels should more closely examine what she is voting for. Rather than attempt to justify her vote maybe it would have been better for her just to say she made a mistake. Politicians can make mistakes, the problem only occurs when they try to justify those mistakes.
Brad W says
Our County Commission and County government are a complete failure and refuse to address their dysfunction. This Dunn guy is ridiculous and should not be trusted. How much more obvious can you get that there is probably actual corruption going on.
When it comes to the press any communications director with minimal experience knows you can get press releases in major news throughtout the year for under $20,000 per year. They would also know that you don’t need $40k going to “communicators” one time in hopes they would get info out about us.
Bottom line is that Coffey needs to go and a great deal of the other leaders under him including Dunn.
I most certainly agree with the comments here! Somehow Matt Dunn and Craig Coffey not only survived the Princess Place, Spartan Race debacle, but now Dunn is “doubling down” at $40,000, and “bribing” writers to “possibly” say nice things about our area and community. Ethics and integrity right out the window!
Well, let’s see if they can spin out of this one!
too dubious or improbable to be believed:
an unbelievable excuse.
so remarkable as to strain credulity; extraordinary
What will this County Tourism Board come up with next ??????????????
$46,000.00 divided by the 125 people they are expecting for 4 days amounts to $368.00 per person, almost $100 per day per person the county is giving to a private organization that puts out an internet mailing in the “hopes” that they write something nice & it gets picked up by a newspaper. For $46k+ we can have a few local writers do some nice articles & pay a company to put numerous SEO words on the internet to lead back to these articles for about the next 8 years.
Palm Coast Sympo$$$ia that we had last Century:
First Palm Coast Symposium to Assay The Human Condition
From the very inception of Palm Coast the cultural aspect of its future have
been an integral part of the planning.
Palm Coast is a planned, total community. Land use is a balance of
residential, commercial, social and open space, with provision for
education, arts, health care and other requisites for a good life. As a new
town, it functions as a proving ground for new and better ways of doing
things, to promote better urban living, to improve the quality of life in
all areas of human existence.
One of the areas of extreme inportance with which a new town, or any town,
nust concern itself is the encouragement of cultural pursuits, the liberal
arts, etc. because they provide a special and natural way for people to get
in touch with themselves, to communicate with each other, and to get more
satisfaction from being alive. Without this human growth and interaction,
there can be no development of any town , any society.
Toward aiding this cultural growth, and toward fulfillment of its cultural
and social commitment to Palm Coast, we are staging the First Palm Coast
Symposium, Novenber 15 and 16th, 1974.
From the outset, Dr. Young has believed that cultural growth must be an
integral thread in the fabric of Palm Coast life. Palm Coast is a town of
vision and as such, we conceived the plan for the Symposium at the very
beginning of the planning process and we endeavor to make this type of
cultural expression a continuing experience in the future.
It is Palm Coast’s hopes that the concept of the Symposium will flourish and
expand to become a national and perhaps international instituion concerned
with the human dimensions of contemporary problems.
It is envisioned that future symposia at Palm Coasat will bring together
outstanding men and women from business, science, government, the arts,
education, and the humanities and other sectors of society who will learn
from one another through discussion and debate. And each will contribute his
or her talents and experiences to a mutual exploration of the human
condition, contrasting established convictions and habits with the new ideas
Fundamentall important is not that final solutions emerge from the
discussions at Palm Coast but that the essence of the best thinking on these
matters be exposed, evaluated, refined, and applied to individual lives and
Dr. Young believes that great historical change is not the result of
inexorable force only. Great changes can come about because a few people are
able to articulate powerful ideas, thus generating new forces in human
The formal sessions and the accomodations will be at the * Sheraton
Palm Coast Inn . Attendance will be by invitation only. The topics of
the discussions will include: Human Nature and Human Destiny; Uplifting the
Underprivileged; Popular Culture and Elite Culture, The Universities: For
What and Whom??
Panelists include William Buckley, Editor of the National Review; Gloria
Steinem, Editor of Ms. Magazine, Harold Rosenberg, art critic of New Yorker
Magazine, Professor Leslie Fiedler, Chairman of the English Department,
State University of New York at Buffalo; Dr. Gunnar Myrdal, noted Swedish
social scientist; Sidney Hood, philosopher and Research Fellow at the Hoover
Instituteion, Vernon E. Jordan, Executive Director of the National Urban
League; Saul Bellow best selling author; Dr. James Watason, Nobel
Prize-winning biologist, Arthur Schles, Jr. two – time winner of the
Pulitzer Prize, historian and writer; Lionel Trilling, University Professor
Emeritus, Columbia, Truman Capote, noted author, and Dr. E.T.York,
Chancellor – Elect of the State Universities for the State of Florida.
The moderator of the sessions will be Melvin M. Tumin, Professor of
Sociology and Anthropology, Princeton University.
These are the outstanding Panelists who participated in the First Palm
Coast Symposium are shown in the Jpeg above.
Why bother having a TDC council and County Commission if everything just gets rubber stamped. I don’t keep track but has anything put forth by the golden boy Dunn before the commission NOT been rubber stamped other than the Princess Place debacle? Only public outrage stopped that or that would have been rubber stamped. And the ROI statements are a joke….no costs are ever factored into the ROI’s like personnel, maintenance and repairs, garbage collection/disposal fees, wear and tear on infrastructure etc. The return on investment from this bribery is far less then they’d have you know. I was at the soccer tournament a few weeks ago at Indian Trails….the fields were destroyed from being used in the rain…..how much did that cost in turf and personnel to repair? You won’t find that on a TDC ROI. Is there some benefit to what TDC does?….sure…but nowhere near what the intentionally manipulated figures would lead you to believe.
Glooby Gloob says
People know there’s outdoor activities here. It’s Florida. No need to pay people thousands of dollars for blog posts that may or may not be read by anyone planning to visit Flagler.
Dan potter says
In response to Glooby Glooby. Well said my friend! People do not care about what is written in some silly article by someone detached from Flagler. Now, if that writer described where a pot of gold is hidden in this county and was willing to supply an accurate map to it then it would receive our attention. The problem is that some persons in positions of authority begin to think what they say is actually the truth. The truth is that 40K is being thrown away needlessly. To the average individual 40K is a lot of money but to a person that does not own that 40K it is just expendable money. Just ask Congress, they are the leaders in spending money they do not own.
For 40 grand you can hold the conference in my living room!!
Wait — half that, 20 grand!!
This is all tied together…the county is in with the developer, screw the residents. They can’t find a buyer for their new hotel, this revenue will be in there advertised 2016 figures to lure in another investor….could go on and on….
The Hammock will be a commercial corridor like DB if someone doesn’t stand up to this madness. Unfortunately, doesn’t appear anyone aside from Ms Revels gets it…and she is not our district 29 representative.
This individual (being kind) we have in charge of tourism could care about any preservation concerns, or people who were here long before him, under a set of assurances…same with CA.
Bait and switch…..
I told you so says
This is another example why Hanns, Ericksen and Revels need to be voted out in 2016. These irresponsible decisions are made far too often. You know if Craig Coffey was up to his eyeballs in the Spartan deal with Dunn he is behind this too. These county commissioners are out of control!! They ALL need to go!!!!!!!!!!!! What a waste of our precious tax dollars.
Nancy N. says
I’m a professional blogger who also works as a marketing consultant to multiple companies (but not in the tourism industry). So I’ve been on both sides of transactions like this.
To everyone complaining about this arrangement as being “speculative”…this is just how marketing to writers works for the purposes of convincing them to produce editorial content. If ONE of these writers publishes an article in the right venue, this money could easily return itself times over. Paying a writer directly to produce content is advertising and has to come with all sorts of disclaimers that automatically discredit it in the eyes of the reader. Generating pure editorial content is much better from a marketing standpoint. But to get that, you have to engage in marketing to writers to convince them you are a worthy subject to write about that has no guarantees of return.
As for the suggestion that a local writer should write content and then TDC should pay for keywords to promote it…that just isn’t the same thing credibility wise to the reader as having editorial content appear organically to the reader in respected publications. They just aren’t interchangeable options. Keyword marketing solicited promotional content is straight out advertising. Inspiring influential writers to create editorial content is marketing. Believe me when I say that the second is way more effective than the first.
Tony Washington says
If you say so Nancy, enjoy your vacation at the Hammock Resort.