Flagler County commissioners learned about it behind the scenes from County Administrator Craig Coffey this week but haven’t yet spoken of it openly. On Thursday, Coffey confirmed it: the Spartan extreme-sport race the tourism office arranged to bring to Princess Place Preserve for an event–an arrangement that collapsed in the face of public opposition–will be coming to Flagler County after all, but at a different location.
The new arrangement, first reported today by the News-Journal, would have the race take place at the privately owned Florida Cracker Ranch, owned by Swayne Strickland, near Korona south of Bunnell next March 19 (the date set at one point for the Princess Place run). The race does not yet appear on Spartan’s schedule of coming races. Last summer, in one of the many missteps that bedeviled the deal, Spartan opened registration for the Princess Place race before the county administration had approved a contract or the county commission had approved the arrangement. It had done so at the signal of Matt Dunn, who heads the county’s tourism office, even though Dunn had not gotten clearance from the commission. Spartan currently lists a March 19 race in Las Vegas.
Public opposition to a Spartan race at Princess Place was generally accompanied by a more welcoming attitude toward such a project if it were placed at a more appropriate location, and if it was handled more transparently, especially when it involves large sums of public money and public services. So far, county officials have it roughly half right, with serious questions of lack of openness and patronage undermining the new approach.
Though Dunn appeared before the Tourist Development Council Wednesday with a long list of recent accomplishments and outlines of ongoing projects, as he usually does at every monthly meeting of the TDC, he never mentioned the race to council members. Bill McGuire, the Palm Coast City Council member who represents the city on the tourism board, was not pleased by the silence or by Dunn’s suggestion to the News-Journal that the TDC has already heard the Spartan proposal and won’t need to hear it again. Dunn told the paper that the matter will go before the county commission in November. That suggestion was echoed by Coffey but not by TDC Chairman Nate McLaughlin, who is also a county commissioner, and not welcomed by McGuire.
“I’m in a mystery as to why it wasn’t brought up at the TDC yesterday,” McGuire said Thursday. “There wasn’t any discussion at the meting before or afterward about it and it wasn’t on the agenda. As far as I was concerned it was a dead deal when the thing at Princess Place was cancelled I thought it was the last we’d heard about it.”
McGuire wasn’t objecting to the new potential for a race in Flagler, but to the manner in which it is being presented–and not presented to the appropriate channels. He noted that he has one-on-one meetings with Dunn to review the budget, when Dunn has ample opportunity to mention such developments. He has not done so. “It looks as if something surreptitious is taking place,” McGuire said. “Whether it is or not I don’t know, but this is not the way tourism events are to be presented.”
McGuire isn’t alone in raising issues with the opacity of the process. George Allen III, who with his family owns one of the single-largest stretches of land in family hands in the county, was “upset” to read about the deal that followed contact with several landowners when he was never contacted. “We’d have liked to have a chance to bid on it or at least have a chance at it,” Allen said, citing the county’s involvement (“Matt Dunns seems to be taking credit for getting it there”), making it what is essentially a government-facilitated arrangement. “We had land available, probably would have worked, but we weren’t contacted at all,” he said. The land had for many years been part of Mud Muckers, the Bunnell outdoors company. (The land stretches west of Bunnell, from U.S. 1 all the way to State Road 100.)
“I just thought it wasn’t real fair for the county doing something like that,” Allen said.
McLaughlin said nothing about the deal is done, and he was adamant that the deal must go through the Tourist Development Council first.
“My understanding is that it’s not ready to be brought to TDC,” McLaughlin said. “I don’t know when it’s coming to us but Matt will make his application when he’s fully ready to bring it up.” Asked specifically whether he intends the project to go through TDC, McLaughlin said: “Absolutely, this has to go through all the channels, there’s nothing here that’s a done deal, it still has to be heard and evaluated by the TDC and the BOCC,” the Board of County Commissioners.
More often than not Spartan contracts with private resorts or land owners to run its races, paying thousands of dollars for access to the venues.
Dunn’s original deal with Spartan earlier this year, arranged with Coffey’s blessing, promised to cede large sections of Princess Place to the privately run organization, with a $55,000 subsidy from the county, $25,000 of it cash and much of the rest in publicly funded services such as fire and rescue protection, utilities and other amenities. The county was reviewing the contract from Spartan when Dunn announced the arrangement to the TDC last August, triggering a withering public backlash over the deal-making’s lack of transparency and the use of Princess Place for an event that by design upends the landscape to create obstacles that challenge runners. The races draw up to 6,000 participants and thousands of spectators.
Dunn portrayed the package’s monetary award to Spartan as still being “on the table” when he spoke to the News-Journal’s Aaron London (a reporter he described to Spartan as “good to us,” and to whom he grants interviews. Dunn does not respond to FlaglerLive’s interview requests.) Coffey, the county administrator, said he didn’t know if the monetary package is the same, but that the two packages would likely be “similar.”
Asked if the package still being on the table meant that it could bypass the TDC, McLaughlin was clear. “That is not my understanding, no,” McLaughlin said today. “My understanding is it’s a different event. We approved it for Princess Place. I would think if the TDC is going to approve it you still have to bring it back and acknowledge the change and ensure that the TDC is still on board with it. I don’t see anything automatic here, I don’t see anything automatic at all.”
Dunn, who becomes a county employee starting in January (he was employed by the chamber of commerce previously, though his salary was always taxpayer-funded), has always been assiduous in his work: his ability to secure sports events by the slew for Flagler is what has endeared him to county officials, who see the events as pistons in the county’s development economic engine: hotel and motel room bookings continue to increase on his watch, with tourism tax revenue set to exceed $2 million this year, a record. (“Our goal all along has been to create a collection that surpasses the $2 million mark,” Dunn said, with some 2,200 more hotel rooms sold this year compared to last.)
But the Spartan debacle brought to light another matter Dunn had not openly disclosed to the TDC, except in his job interview with the chamber of commerce at the time of his hiring: his side business, the Dunn Agency, designed to do much of what Dunn does now for the county.
McGuire brought up that matter at the end of the TDC meeting Thursday, forcing Dunn, for the first time, to publicly acknowledge his agency and its status, and his intentions with it.
“This is not something that is not pleasant,” McGuire told Dunn, “but with the recent coverage in the local media about your activities as TDC director, for which I applaud you, there has been some criticism if you will of your secondary business. Would you comment to the board at this time as to what impact if any that this has on your ability to function as TDC director.”
“I made a commitment to the chamber when I accepted the position to make the LLC inactive,” Dunn said. “We were very clear in our understanding that I was going to maintain the filing and I have done so for personal tax reasons for investments that I have through the company. At no time since January of 2014 has there been activity with the company whatsoever in terms of seeking any additional revenue, and with that, I’ll make this statement that, you know, I dove into this job with both feet, I could have certainly been better about trying to close things out, I’m very well aware that the website still exists and is up and running although there are some details with the website, for example my Twitter feed automatically just is posted. Of course, when I’m tweeting, I’m tweeting about Palm Coast and Flagler Beaches, not about my former organization. So that, combined with even some personal social media that I have, you know, I just never went back and cleaned any of that up, because my focus was on changing this organization around. So there are some things that I will make sure I button up before we become a county department.”
“Speaking for myself,” McGuire said, “I don’t care if you go out on Highway 100, stand on your head and spit quarters as long as you’re doing a workman-like job for the tourism effort. But I wanted this to come forward so that there’s transparency in the activities that you perform as a member of the Board of County Commissioners’ staff.”
“For the public record, Mr. Dunn and his staff will be subject to, as of January 1st, employee policies of the county,” McLaughlin told the rest of the TDC. “So competitive jobs and things like that obviously are prohibited. But I’ll speak to Mr. Dunn’s integrity.”