Has Flagler Beach’s July 4 celebration become too much–too big, too unpredictable–of a good thing for this sliver of a town? Could its interminable parade possibly be scaled back, its fireworks show shortened or ceded to Palm Coast, its Veterans Park activities refocused on families and the flow of booze in public places restricted on the beach, where it is now legal?
Those are some of the questions that animated the first meeting of Flagler Beach’s July 4 Committee this morning at City Hall. The panel of five, not including non-voting members, was appointed by the Flagler Beach City Commission last month and is chaired by Scott Spradley, a Flagler Beach attorney.
The task of the committee is to draft recommendations on “how we can do 4th of July safely,” Mayor Suzie Johnston, a non-voting member of the panel, said. That entails re-examining what has been the city’s most beloved and popular tradition, anchored on its morning parade and night fireworks, possibly eliminating the fireworks or scaling them down.
The last two years aside, when Covid caused the events to be cancelled, the city’s Independence Day event has become increasingly costly for the city to manage and, while lucrative for restaurants and bars, not necessarily as beneficial to other businesses, and an aggravation to many residents who see their yards invaded by out-of-town vehicles. The event appears on course to become “Spring Break in Fort Lauderdale,” in the words of panelist Rick Bowen. “We don’t want it to go there.”
The panel is by no means stacked with predetermined conclusions: today’s discussion mirrored the variety of perspectives on the subject, and the steep challenges the group faces in crafting realistic, pragmatic solutions to a hydra-limbed event. Carla Cline, who owns businesses in town, said the event has no effect on her bottom line as a retailer: visitors are typically drawn to restaurants and bars, not shops. She favored scaling back the event.
Scott Fox, owner of Tortugas, the restaurant and bar on State Road A1A, for example, spoke in stark terms of the importance of the fireworks to his business’ revenue: The restaurant took in $8,000 on the Saturday of July 4 in 2020, a day impacted by the absence of the event and Covid’s summer wave. The year before Covid, revenue had been at $15,000 that July 4 (a Thursday), as it had been the year before that. “You can obviously see there’s a huge increase in sales,” Fox said.
Johnston described the day’s magnitude as having outrun the city’s ability to handle it on its own. Putting on an event in a city of 5,000 in a county of 121,000, she said, is out of scale. “The plan we have right now is not working.” She talked about Flagler County Assist, the former React, the corps of volunteers who help regulate traffic. The group has had members struck by cars, she said, and the drinking has become “excessive.”
“We need to do something before something tragic happens,” Johnston said, suggesting such things as cooler checks on the Boardwalk, before people get on the beach, though that would require an ordinance change that would ban alcohol on the beach.
Cline said she loved the event as a child, but it “isn’t sustainable to have a giant event for 50,000 people in a tiny beach town,” suggesting that it was time to “break tradition.” She said “as heartbreaking as that would be,” letting Palm Coast take over the fireworks would be a start. Flagler Beach is exploring the idea of shifting its fireworks display to New Year’s Eve, giving businesses a boost at a time when they experience a big decline in activity.
Spradley has lived in town for 17 years. Years ago he could bike down from 17th Street to the center of town to watch the fireworks. That’s no longer possible. He described the ride as dangerous–as going into “a war zone.” The beach is filled up by 7 a.m. The parade rolls by by 10 a.m., when “the city is packed.”
Looking forward to 2022, Police Chief Matt Doughney said, that Friday will be First Friday, the weekend will draw throngs, and July 4 will fall on a Monday, making it a four-day event. “That is going to absolutely exhaust city services,” Doughney said. The city typically starts planning July 4 in February.
Flagler Beach gets policing and volunteer help from around the county, but the city disproportionately bears the public safety burden, City Manager William Whitson said. (Doughney, Whitson, and Flagler Beach Fire Chief Bobby Pace all sat in on the meeting.) “We are spending in overtime and preplanning and garbage, lifeguarding and other services,” Whitson said, “we are bearing the majority of the cost of the event. What that exact number is, I couldn’t tell you right now.”
Johnston recalled a security incident that led one business she knows to pledge never to open again on July 4. Fox said an isolated incident should not define the day’s events for the whole community and its businesses, “a sense of pride for everybody that lives in this community.”
“It just doesn’t affect the businesses in the CRA, the fireworks, what that does is give every business a clear view from Snack Jacks all the way to Beverly Beach, so it spreads it out,” Fox said. (The CRA is the Community Redevelopment Agency, or enterprise zone, that covers the core of downtown.) He pointed to notable improvements in safety in recent years, just before Covid. The difference between 2016 and 2018 and 2019 was the police presence.
“I saw a huge difference from the first few years, 2018 and 2019, where it seemed it was more subdued,” Fox said. “How much that was the weather, the police presence, I think that was a big improvement over where it was. I think we evolved in the right direction.” Fox said the addition of shuttle buses from the Badcock shopping center on the mainland for the three years before Covid was also a significant improvement, though even that parking lot, with 200 spaces, was being overrun in the last year the buses were used–a sign both of the shuttle program’s popularity and the July 4 event’s continuing surge in attendance.
“It’s something that I grew up with and it’s something that I want my child to experience growing up with, but,” the mayor said, “at this point, almost you would have to survey and ask every business to get their perspective on it.” She said the goal should be to scale it back, not to scrap it.
That, in fact, is one of the directions the panel took through a distinctly civil, measured discussion at its first meeting.
Safety, traffic, parking, finances and future growth are the primary challenges, panelists agreed. They favored issuing a survey to residents listing those issues and asking them to rank them in terms of importance to themselves, relative to July 4. But Spradley, who previously chaired the city’s parking committee said the survey would have to be more carefully crafted and discussed at a subsequent meeting.
“Is this something that is going to go on an agenda for a City Commission meeting?” Cline asked.
“Absolutely not,” a member of the panel said. “We want to get something done,” Whitson said, tongue in cheek. The commission will be kept informed, however.
The next meeting’s other goal: to think of future solutions for parking, such as the Catholic Church and elsewhere (shuttling as far out from the airport and the high school would be “too far,” Douhgney said.) The mayor suggested each panelist speak with at least 20 residents or business members about how they see the event growing, “and a solution.”
The panel next meets on September 29 at 9 a.m. with meetings also set for Oct. 13 and 26 at the same time. The meeting adjourned after 80 minutes.