With what some are telling Historic City News are mixed feelings, the independent group, calling themselves “Focus 450”, led by former Industrial Development Authority chair Jim Browning and former mayor Len Weeks, held a reception attended by political supporters, candidates, and a handful of St Augustine’s affluent benefactors who are poised to do the heavy lifting to attempt to make good on at least some of the lofty goals promised and yet un-delivered by the city’s 450 Commemoration office, chaired by Dana Ste. Claire.
We may never know the true cost to St Augustine’s 13,000 taxpayers who have underwritten a four-year blank check to spend in the name of a celebration that has never had community buy-in from day 1. No one but Mayor Joe Boles knows why it continued — despite discovered fraud and waste of valuable city resources; and, seemingly was re-energized and then eclipsed by the next failure in the tragic parade of failures that has closely resembled a funeral procession.
One of the projects touted by the Focus 450 group at a previous event, was the aquarium and Children’s Museum, which the city finally abandoned when lenders got cold feet after hearing of raised eyebrows by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection; who had been alerted by citizen watchdogs in the Lincolnville community diametrically opposed to development on an unstable piece of city-owned property that amounts to a poorly-capped landfill.
“I just think it’s sad that they weren’t interested in resident involvement four or five years ago. We might have saved some money and been able to do more things,” one financial stakeholder said, off the record. Former mayor, George Gardner, had organized a community-directed non-profit 450th Corps that would have essentially accomplished the same thing without using taxpayer money — his political adversary, Mayor Boles, put an end to that — simply directing fellow commissioners to appoint its own “steering committee” leaving Gardner and his crew personae non gratae.
From the time the commemoration was first introduced, it was clear that this exercise was going to be about two things; ego and legacy. Gardner has an ego, albeit considerably subordinate to that of Joe Boles; however, his legacy is already written with the construction of the Historic Downtown Parking Facility. Critics will say the cost was inflated and there was no consideration given to local companies who were qualified to do and needed the work, however, despite what Gardner’s administration spent or who did the work, we have brick and mortar to show for it in addition to the utility.
In stark contrast we ask what will be the legacy of the Boles administration. Since Boles took office, he has done nothing but spend money, instigating lawsuits against the city, and losing in court, consumed entirely with pomp and circumstance, balls and galas and gala balls, loss of management and the associated income from the state-owned historical properties, and, inescapably, the 450th Commemoration. No buildings, no garage, no towers, nothing except a stack of paid receipts and canceled checks.
One attendee Thursday night was John D. Bailey, Sr., one of St Augustine’s most distinguished residents, benefactors and man who is committed to giving back to a community where it is hard to find a part of town where his generosity can’t be seen. Bailey served on the volunteer 400th steering committee, which has a name: “quadricentennial”. Our 500 commemoration in fifty years will have a name, too: “quincentennial”, but there is no name for a 450th commemoration … well, there is, but we won’t publish words like that.
What sets Focus 450 apart from the Ste. Claire – Boles – Regan taxpayer-funded boondoggle is that the purpose of the private group is to match project producers with those who might be interested in participating in their program.
For example, the real arts and cultural organization in St Johns County, the St Augustine Art Association, is building the “Touch St. Augustine Art Garden”. The Association has produced a touchable art show for the blind every October for the past 13-years in partnership with the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind. This unique display of touchable art for those who are visually impaired will be enhanced with Braille signage and audio guides, thanks to the Focus 450 patrons.
The City’s approach has been to come up with ideas, and rather that find an organization to produce them, the city attempts to finance and produce them themselves. They have never “made money”, nor is it the purpose of local government to “make money”. Unfortunately the approach taken has been at the expense of other purposes residents do count on the city to produce.
“What we really appreciate are the people and projects that we’re going to try to help. So Focus 450’s goal is to assist some of these projects that you see here tonight in the raising of funds and creating additional awareness of their projects,” Browning said. “There’s no way that one organization can raise all of the money for what these projects stand for but there is the opportunity for us to go outside the city and try to raise money on a corporate level and that’s one of our goals.”