Editorial: In the name of the 450th

Certain members of the City of St Augustine staff, and some of its elected commissioners, have increasingly taken heat from the public about what, exactly, we taxpayers have to show for the hundreds of thousands of our tax dollars that have been thrown at what should have been a simple, economically realistic anniversary week, or even event.

First, dismissed as just “a handful of crazies” and “malcontents who complain about everything”, as the years have continued to pass, the waste continues to come to light, and fraud continues to be exposed, more and more “voices of reason” are coming to the forefront and questioning the emperor’s clothes.

Thursday, May 3, as he delivered the Culturally La Florida keynote address, Dr Michael Gannon, Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History and member of the federally appointed — but not yet funded — St Augustine 450th Commemorative Commission, reflected on past commemoration efforts to celebrate the founding of St Augustine.

Dr. Gannon brings a unique perspective to the history of city; and, fifty years ago, he served on the St Augustine 400th Commemorative Commission.  Make no mistake, the 400th anniversary was a success, was administered by citizens of high integrity, was free from waste and fraud, and, it didn’t threaten to bankrupt the city.

Gannon noted that St Augustine residents “ended up raising about $6.258 million dollars. And that was without a professional fundraiser.”

He said seven committees were involved, including the St. Augustine 400th Anniversary Coordinating Committee made up of 17 leading citizens who promoted cooperation and created activities.

Today’s efforts, as pointed to in a recent guest column by former City Commissioner and Mayor George Gardner and published in The St Augustine Record, are “managed by a three-member City Hall team, focused on branding to attract visitors and donors.”

Labor statistics show that the average wage paid, in St Johns County as a whole, is about $35,000 per person, per year.  How does that compare to the three-member City Hall team?

Ste Claire Dana M ST AUG 450TH COMM DEV DIR

82,000.00

Seraphin Charles R ST AUG 450TH MARKETING SPEC.

72,000.00

Zuberer Jennifer L COMM & RES MGR/450TH COMM.

48,393.19

450th SALARIES

202,393.19

Over $200,000 in salaries alone.  That figure does not include reimbursed expenses, such as travel to Miami, Washington DC, or Aviles, Spain, or the benefits paid on those salaries.  It does not include the hundreds of thousands of dollars given to the defunct First America Foundation, the money thrown away in search of the perfect logo to brand events that may not even happen.

“Corporations and major donors don’t contribute to governments,” Gardner goes on to say.  “But, if any funds are available out there today, a sanctioned community-based non-profit organization would be best equipped to attract them.”

Gardner is referring to an original corps of volunteers envisioned while he was still on the city commission.  Bill Adams, the city’s former Director of Heritage Tourism and a city employee since September 1999, was also a volunteer member of the 450th Corps circa 2007.  Others who valued the lessons learned from the 400th Anniversary and served on the exploratory group included; former Mayor Greg Baker, former St. Augustine Record Publisher Ronnie Hughes, former State Rep. Doug Wiles, Glenn Hastings, executive director of the Tourist Development Council; Paul Williamson, public affairs director and Gardner.

At their March 9 2009 meeting, the city commission appointed Dana Ste. Claire as interim director for St Augustine’s 450th Anniversary.  At that time, Ste. Claire was employed by Historic Tours of America — operators of the Old Jail, green trolley and now bidders on both the Colonial Spanish Museum and Bayfront Mini Golf.

Just a few months later, on July 24, 2009, then City Manager Bill Harriss announced that Adams would retire at the end of the month and that Ste. Claire would become interim director of Heritage Tourism.

From the time Ste. Claire was hired, the direction for the boondoggle we have today was set.  Fueled by ego and grandiose dreams of a fruitful economy and millions of tourists descending on St Augustine, the 450th plan was diluted into a four-year commemoration of loosely related anniversaries, and a “cost is no object” attitude.

Gardner believes that there is still hope for a 450th celebration on a “realistic scale” but only if the citizens of the city and county buy in.  With the exception of too many scalpers and carpetbaggers, we haven’t had that level of grassroots support.

Maybe we should have called on a few grouchy neighbors?

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