And at 5:44 p.m. in the fading light of Nov. 3, Mayor Jon Netts, the rest of the city council and a few revenants from Palm Coast’s not-so-distant founding days—among them Jim Canfield, the first mayor, and Dick Kelton, the first city manager—cut the ribbon and inaugurated City Hall.
It only took 16 years, though judging from the throngs gathered around the earth-toned building’s North entrance on Town Center’s Lake Avenue, the wait was suddenly irrelevant. So was whatever controversy graveled the way to the grand opening. Netts summed up the occasion: “A new day brings a new era to Palm Coast,” he said to the big crowd. There were about four times as many people as the 100-odd chairs that’d been set out for the occasion, and about six or seven times the number of people who’d showed up earlier in the day to see Gov. Rick Scott cut the ribbon at the Sheriff’s new Operations Center in Bunnell.
They started gathering and breaking up into tour groups at 4 p.m. to get their first look at the 40,000 square-foot edifice on lake Avenue, with its broad corridors, airy, open public offices, its intimate relationship—made more intimate by big windows and glass doors—with the surrounding landscape, and, finally, actual offices designed for government workers (with conference rooms at every turn for teamwork) and a genuine board chamber designed for government meetings, as opposed to the all-purpose community room or insurance-office-like conference room the council had used for its meetings and workshops all these years.
“I’m happy for our staff. They finally have a professional place to work,” Netts said, settling in for the first time at the center of the dais just before the first council meeting in the new digs Tuesday evening. He bore the expression of a teenager in a Ferrari showroom. The council chamber soon filled beyond capacity. “I hope there isn’t anything terribly controversial on the agenda that brings you out,” Netts told the crowd as the meeting began.
There wasn’t. Not yet. Not that evening. The inevitable could be put off at least one week, with that most unusual beginning for a government meeting: applause. And that was before one of the fitting proclamations of the evening, recognizing the life-saving efforts of Alex Parente, an employee at KemperSports, which runs the city’s golf course, and Dr. Augusto DeLeon, who saved a golfer who’d collapsed on the greens with CPOR and a defibrillator. The city hall project was itself something of a resuscitation, managed almost single-handedly by the deftness and financial creativity of City Manager Jim Landon and his staff.
Landon was in the unusual position of playing emcee for the brief ceremony preceding the council meeting. “This is really about you today and not the elected officials, in my opinion,” Landon told the crowd. He framed the ceremony as a journey, with each successive speaker reflecting a different historic point along that journey, which was by no means coming to an end so much as starting anew. One of those points was Canfield, the original mayor, who connected the occasion with its historical roots by movingly recalling the original council’s five members, three of whom—Jim Holland, Ralph Carter and Jerry Full—have died. Bill Venne, the fifth, was also in the audience.
Canfield imagined the departed looking at the proceedings. “They’d be very proud of what they see on this occasion, and they’d be the first to compliment the 2015 council,” Canfield said.
He remembered his early days as mayor shortly after the city incorporated in December 1999. “I as a mayor was holding office hours in the coffee shop in the old K-Mart,” he remembered. He carried all the city’s files in a shopping bag. “And the shopping bag wasn’t even full at the time.”
That was at the beginning of the city’s odyssey through four pseudo-city halls, among them an ex-library. “It took some political courage, and it took some financing to make it happen.” Looking at the current council, which was seated to his left, Canfield said, “This building is your legacy, council 2015. Thank you.”
Since 2008, city offices have been at City Marketplace, occupying 21,000 square feet and paying $20,000 a month, or $240,000 a year, until last year, when the new owners of the strip mall played hardball with the city and attempted to raise the rent 57 percent (or an additional $138,000), before agreeing to limit the increase to 10 percent. The city administration couldn’t wait to get out. The move-in took place exactly a year after ground-breaking.
“Today means to me that I just lowered your ad-valorem taxes by a quarter of a million dollars a year going forward,” council member Bill McGuire said, citing the old landlord’s costs. McGuire’s support of the city hall project cost him politically, as part of the base that elected him did so on the assumption that he would oppose the building’s construction. But McGuire saw the project as a more viable alternative to perpetual rent, especially as it was accomplished without debt. “We gave them a better deal than they had before,” McGuire said, referring to taxpayers. “We own this building. We’re not indebted for a penny for this building. That’s what I’m proud of.”