Not much more than a year ago, a proposed $5.7 million expansion and rebranding of the Palm Coast tennis center as a regional racquet club was a thunderhead of controversy and divided votes on the Palm Coast City Council. Today, a revised and largely expanded $11.35 million plan to remake the grounds with a luxurious community center, solar-power-arrayed pickle balls, a dog park and a trailhead as bucolic as it’ll be ritzy drew almost nothing but praise and no detectable resistance from four council members.
“That’s why so many people want to be here, because we provide these quality amenities to the community,” Council member John Fanelli said.
The Lehigh Trailhead Project would remake the land on the east side of Belle Terre Parkway, north of the tennis center (under the high-voltage powerlines, near Fire Station 25). It would have a community garden, including 18 garden plots and a compost bin, a 1.3-acre dog park, a restroom, two shaded pavilions, and an exercise trail. The Lehigh Trail borders its northern edge. There would be 72 parking spaces.
The trailhead project adds up to $2.52 million, with a Florida Department of Transportation grant shouldering $1.6 million of that, park impact fees picking up $651,000, and the State Road 100 Community Redevelopment Agency or Town center zone, which has its own tax revenue, picking up $289,000.
That’s just a start. The $11.35 million Recreation Facility Project is the main course. There’ll be a community building, including administrative offices, restrooms and locker rooms, a kitchen and dining room, two multi-purpose rooms, a lobby and patio spaces, plus six covered pickle ball courts possibly lit up through a solar-energy array, and six lit up the more fossilized way.
The recreation facility will capture users among existing residents and a projected 1,000 new dwellings to be built in Town center alone, Carl Cote, the city’s director of engineering, said.
Park impact fees would cover $7.1 million of the project, the State Road 100 CRA would pick up $3.5 million. The city is in line for a $739,000 Tourist Development grant–the grant that made the news recently as revelations emerged that Flagler Beach failed to apply for it. The TDC makes its recommendation on that grant next week, and the County Commission is to ratify the decision in August.
Previously, the city was going to draw at least in part on the general fund, which is supported by property taxes. “Due to the rise in development and the influx of the park impact fees, we were able to fund this without using any of the general fund dollars,” Cote said–assuming the TDC grant makes it through whole. “We’re the sole applicants for the TDC grant, right?” Mayor David Alfin said. “That would give us a 99 percent assurity that we would get it, right?” Actually, it’s still in the TDC’s hands, then in the commission’s hands, to decide whether to award the full amount or a smaller amount.
The project is phased over three fiscal years. Contracts would be awarded in July, with the bulk of the construction happening in 2022, wrapping up in December 2023. The council will have to approve a series of contracts to different contractors and firms covering all the costs. There appears to be no opposition, even from Ed Danko, the council member who gave voice to the opposition to the expansion in 2021.
“And this is a scaled-down version from what we were originally talking about,” Danko asked.
“Not quite,” Alfin said. “Not only is it scaled down, but it’s flex space now, so now it’s a a community center, which affords the public the opportunity to–it relieves the pressure on our community center, which is now over booked.”
“Scaled down” is a stretch: “shift” is more accurate. Gone, at least for now, is talk of a combined 42 tennis and pickle ball courts, perhaps because the city is realizing that tennis is not nearly the booming sport it once was. Gone is talk of a massive stadium center court. Gone, too, is talk of calling it all the Reilly Opelka Racquet Center, after the often Palm Coast-based tennis pro who’s made a name for himself as a top American player, but is still struggling to break through the elite of the sport. (His parents live in Grand Haven.) The city’s TDC application was equivocal about the name. The city is now referring to the future 63-acre complex as the Southern Recreation Facility
Danko also posed a question that the city in 2021 evaded: “We will have to hire additional employees to staff this facility, correct?” he asked. “Do we have any type of business plan or model or anything?”
“I know by offering some of the program spaces here, they’re probably going to have a couple of additional staff, it won’t be until fiscal year 2023,” Cote said.
The proposed cost, however, is not scaled back: to the contrary. When the tennis center expansion was proposed last year, it was to start with a $5.7 million plan focused on new pickle ball and tennis courts, including the stadium court, restrooms, a lobby and reception area, a pro shop, locker room facilities. The present plan is more immediately ambitious, and costly.
“All I want to know is, will we be able to break even on this?” Danko asked. The answer wasn’t a direct yes, but that the city would be aiming for what remains a nebulous goal: city parks don’t make money, nor do they “break even” in the classical sense of the term, when considered amenities. But they do unquestionably end up being supported by the city’s tax base, and principally by its property tax base: that’s how employees are paid. So to claim that the expansion will not be drawing on the general fund is true only regarding fixed, capital costs–not recurring, annual operational costs. The conflating of numbers persisted, however.
The new plan’s inclusion of a dog park may have been a nod to the councilman, who takes his dog to the dog park at Holland Park several times a week. Danko was concerned about having a single dog park serving all dogs, large and small. But the acreage and Florida Power and Light’s uses of the area, warding off certain fencing, makes it problematic to split the park, Cote said. The discussion now is to open a small-dog park further south on Belle Terre or to have different hours for different-size dogs at the principal park.
“Two things that are fantastic: the migration away from using general fund dollars and I also encourage the exploration of the solar possibilities,” Council member Nick Klufas said.
“The shades for the additional pickleball courts not only make the pickleball courts usable during the heat but also for sure summertime programming that can occur at these facilities,” Klufas, the council’s most global-warming-conscious member, said. “It’s really important to keep kids out of the sun and just in general when it is like it is outside now during the midday without any type of shade. It’s really brutal out there. And that makes the space usable almost around the clock.”
The council had two options for a solar array: one option was a partial array, costing $275,000, the other covering the entire roof of the pickle balls, for $528,000, saving the city over $200,000 over 25 years, or $19,300 a year. The cells start losing their efficiency after 25 years. “It is a cost-benefit option to do this option,” Cote said. But for now federal grants are not available. It wasn’t clear from Tuesday’s meeting what solar option the council will choose. The facility will also provide an electric-car charging station.
Only four of the council’s five members heard the recreation center presentation because Eddie Branquinho had walked out earlier in the meeting.