Flagler County’s Tourist Development council this morning approved a $739,000 grant for Palm Coast government’s ongoing expansion of the city’s tennis center off Belle Terre Parkway into a Southern Regional Recreation Center, with a new and park-like trailhead, a community center, and a dozen pickleball courts. The grant will defray the cost of the pickleball courts.
The 6-2 vote is a recommendation to the County Commission, which makes the final decision in August. TDC members Ryan Crabb and Pam Walker voted against–an odd vote from Crabb, who had given the grant very high marks when each member of the council graded the application’s feasibility. Walker had been only slightly less generous.
It’s the first grant of its kind for Flagler County’s TDC, which operates as county government’s oversight of the tourism bureau. Previously, the TDC provided capital grants of up to $150,000 to local governments that could tie a project to some kind of tourism benefit, like the Flagler Beach pier or the Flagler Auditorium. Governments were limited to one such grant every so many years. The TDC revamped the process a few years ago, first to increase the amounts of money available, second, to make non-profits eligible. It’s a two-year cycle.
The money is drawn from revenue from the 5 percent tourism sales surtax, overwhelmingly paid by visitors. The tax applies to motel, hotel, short-term rentals and other temporary lodging transactions, which most local residents do not pay. It drew record revenue of roughly $3.6 million last year, and is on pace to break that record this year, with 20 percent of that directed to the capital projects pot. Advertising gets 60 percent, and beach protection 20 percent. There was $924,000 available in the capital pot two years ago, at the beginning of the cycle. The TDC opted to devote 80 percent of that to the grant round–$739,000.
This year’s grant drew belated attention when Flagler Beach city commissioners realized they could have qualified for it, but the administration there never applied despite having a year and a half to do so, and a representative on the TDC board. (See: “Flagler Beach Misses Deadline on $739,000 Tourism Grant. It had 18 Months to Apply. And an Extension.”) Flagler Beach mayor Suzie Johnston, in an unusual move that led to further controversy on her commission, attempted to file a late application on her own, but it went nowhere. (See: “Flagler Beach Mayor Files Grant On Her Own, Underscoring Grievance With Manager Over Serial Fails.”)
That was part of the context of today’s discussion on the TDC, whose membership is made up of elected representatives from Palm Coast, Flagler Beach and the county (it is chaired, by law, by the county representative, currently Commissioner Dave Sullivan), and of representatives of special interests in the tourism industry, such as Stephen Baker of Hammock Beach Resort, Ryan Crabb of the Hilton Garden Inn in Palm Coast, John Lulgjuraj of Oceanside Beach Bar and Grill in Flagler Beach, and so on. (See the full membership here.)
The approving vote to recommend Palm Coast for the grant included those of Ken Bryan, the Flagler Beach commissioner and his city’s representative on the TDC, and Lulgjuraj’s, who ha been last to remind the city commission of the grant window.
Amy Lukasik, who heads the county’s tourism office, shepherds applicants through the grant process and presented the matter to the council this morning, noted the possibility that the council could, if it so decided, not award the full $739,000 to Palm Coast. Money left on the table could then be ,made available for another grant round with a September deadline. Otherwise, “in January 2023, we’ll do this all again,” with money collected over the past two years. That amount is on pace to be around $1.6 million, when combining the accumulated revenue of the last two years with the $185,000 reserve. And Flagler Beach is just as likely to be first in line, with its very costly pier reconstruction project ahead. (See: “Flagler Beach Commission Votes to Build 800-ft., $12.5 Million Concrete Pier Replacement.”)
“You don’t have to obviously award all $739,000,” Lukasik told the TDC board. “But I do encourage you, you have one application and it’s important to make your recommendation based on the application that’s in front of you. This application scored 17 points out of 20, so obviously they were more than qualified. And you want to make your decision based on the quality of the project meeting the criteria.”
Lauren Johnston, the assistant city manager in palm Coast, along with Carl Cote, the stormwater and engineering director, and newly minted Parks Director James Hurst presented their pickleball project to the council much as it had been presented to the city council earlier this month. (See: “From Controversy to Harmony: Ambitious, $11.4 Million Expansion of Tennis Center and Trailhead Draws Praise.”) Johnston placed the new recreation center in the context of the city’s eyes on adding amenities to the the west, balancing them geographically. “This recreation center is a regional destination,” she said.
The city is hosting nine pickleball tournaments this year, averaging 55 to 65 players each. But they’re all one-day tournaments. Johnston said the plan is to broaden those possibilities. “So with the upgrades of this project,” Brittany McDermott, Palm Coast’s community recreation manager, said, “we are going to have some dedicated pickleball space which is going to allow us to greatly expand the tournaments we’re offering, not just the number of tournaments that we’re able to host throughout the year but expanding them into multi-day events and getting more of that overnight stay that we would hope for out of those tournaments.” She also spoke of the tie-in with the current tennis center’s tennis courts and tournaments there.
Overnight stays are the TDC’s catnip. Overnight stays mean hotel bookings. Hotel bookings mean tourism tax payments, which means more revenue for the TDC’s coffers. Whenever an organization wants to tap the TDC’s money, it has to show a strong element of “overnight stays.”
Lisa Robinson, a member of the TDC board who represents the hotel industry through Hampton Inn and Suites, was skeptical of the city’s projection about future tournaments. The city projects 450 overnight stays every month, as a result of the rec center–an astonishing figure. “We are trying to understand how how you guys come at that number,” Robinson said. It was a pointed question that revealed that the number is a rather speculative extrapolation from statewide estimates issued by Visit Florida, the state’s tourism bureau, whose numbers can of course be a bit tendentious.
Visit Florida “says that amateur sports averages about a 4.3 night a stay. So I just kind of took that number and divided it in half,” McDermott said. “We looked at about bringing in 75 tennis players at two nights, for 12 tournaments in the year. And then we took 75 pickleball players at two nights, 12 months, and then I took those 30 room rentals and we averaged about 30 people per stay. And that was the 30 room rentals times that 30, and that brought you to your grand total of 5400 room nights.”
“Nice if it could happen,” a clearly skeptical Robinson said. Crabb, who would end up voting against the grant, also harped on the importance of documented room nights.
“We like to set high goals,” McDermott said.
Robinson asked if the city knew of tournaments the city knows want to come to Palm Coast. McDermott spoke of the city building numerous such relationships.
“I do have some concerns about the tourism aspect of this with other venues in the area,” Sullivan, the county commissioner and chairman of the TDC, said. wondering about how the county will get its share of tournaments. “For this grant, we have to prove that we’re going to get tourism coming in from outside, and next we got to be very careful about making it any kind of exclusive facility.” He added: “I do think there are some questions that still need to be worked out and see how how it goes.” Other board members also questioned the room night certainties even as they lavished praise on the project overall.
City officials pressed the point: the annual men’s Futures tennis tournament, which couldn’t accommodate a women’s bracket but drew its share of room nights, would not be able to include that bracket and potentially double room nights. And the city, as Lukasik noted, does have an established track record, bringing in tournaments. “They’re maxed out” at the Indian Trails Sports Complex, she said.
Lukasik attempted to ease board members’ skepticism, referring to the TDC’s membership in a national association of sports organizations. “So when we have a tourism asset like this, we have the ability to tap in to those event organizers, even outside of their reach,” Lukasik said. “We would work hand in hand to ensure that they’re meeting those room night goals.” The tourism bureau, in other words, continues to be a support system for the city’s goals.
Corrective Note: The embedded document below is the document council members had before them (minus some of the the more detailed architectural drawings, which were removed to lighten the file. But the scoring sheet had included incorrect headings, which are corrected in this version. The scores remain the same.tdc-palm-coast
Mary Madden says
Ken Bryan blows it again for Flagler Beach. What is this guys deal?
1. Ken first drops the ball and doesn’t get TDC application in.
2. NEXT Ken Votes to give all the money to Palm Coast.
Im starting to think that this guy does NOT want the best for Flagler Beach. Maybe he should move to Palm Coast. OR did he get paid off by someone to screw Flagler Beach over?
It was the City Managers job to complete the application, not the Commissions. The TDC Board made their decision based on the excellent presentation for the ONLY project presented at the meeting today. Flagler Beach did not get cheated out of anything. They did not put in a proper application. Neither did the cities of Bunnell, Marineland, Beverly Beach, Flagler County or any elible non-profit. FYI, FB don’t even have an actual project ready anyway, they were going to “find something” to apply for if there was any funding left. Did you happen to catch where Bryan asked for and received the use of the firewoks money for the dune campaign?
I respectfully disagree, Mary. Ken is holding this city together by a thread. He has been honest and open about the fact that Flagler Beach missed the deadline. He isn’t responsible for submitting the grant application, just like the Mayor isn’t responsible for doing it. It is what it is.
Ken is correct to not make some drama move, as you would like, by staging a protest vote or coordinated response to try to weasel money out of a process they missed the deadline on.
I disagree with Ken more often than not, but he is following Gov’t procedure and policies and should be commended. Whether or not you know it, Flagler Beach is a laughing stock right now and has completely alienated all other govts and agencies. That’s the reality of the Mayor running around doing what she did. Ken, William and Jane know this and are actively working to repair those relationships. Meanwhile, you’re in here suggesting he’s getting paid off. Get real!
Crusty Old Salt says
You are spot on with your comments. There was only 1 complete application submitted. How could Commissioner Bryan vote against it? The City of Flagler Beach does not need to alienate our municipal neighbors.
There seems to be a vendetta against a couple of Flagler Beach Commissioners by a few very outspoken on social media. Just wonder if those few that constantly sit behind a keyboard and complain about everything, if their time would be more productive if they would volunteer for the City of Flagler Beach on one of many projects to beautify our City?
Maybe the next time one of these constant complainers comes to First Friday and sits on one of the new poly wood benches in Veteran’s Park, she/he can thank Commissioner Bryan for spearheading that project and volunteering countless hours making it happen.
There is certainly much that could be done in our City, which is always looking for volunteers.
Pissed of Home Owner says
Perhaps you IDIOTS in this city can FIX THE SWALES in front of the taxpayers homes before WASTING money on this CRAP !
What? This money can’t be used to fix swales…it’s specifically for tourism related initiatives. Wake up!
I feel ya. The new homes on Central have giant hoses which drain down onto my street. Great plan. For them. My street flooded in 2017 and the next will be worse.
Good, PC deserves the money…they had a complete application and it fits the criteria. I’m not sure I agree with all the room night calculations, but it’s better to be built with tourist tax dollars than ad valorem dollars.
Doesn’t seem like Flagler Beach’s Mayor drama spilled over to this meeting, also good. Onward and upward.
I’m going to run this old idea of mine by PC again . . . Why can’t PC buy/lease that property that was once a recreation area aside from the European Village? It used to have an outstanding rec area.
Richard Smith says
God, more WASTED money..
[email protected] says
$739,000 won’t buy much of anything these days. Palm Coast always spends big..who knows what we will get from that.
I do not think this TDC money can be used to fix the swales within Palm Coast. I believe that funding would come from the storm water fees included on our water bill each month. Someone please correct me if I am incorrect.