No breaking news from 450th workshop

During the two-hour city commission 450th Commemoration workshop held Wednesday, September 26; Historic City News learned very little new — enduring mostly a rehash of talking points that have, so far, resulted in few concrete deliverables from the investment of city tax dollars in the much ballyhooed event.

The meeting was called to order by Mayor Joe Boles, and attended by Vice Mayor Leanna S. A. Freeman, as well as Commissioners Errol Jones, Nancy Sikes-Kline, and Bill Leary.

“It’s a lot like a feather duster,” Historic City News editor Michael Gold observed of the discussion. “You move a lot of dust around, but you don’t collect very much.”

Dana Ste. Claire, whose $82,000 a year job as 450th Commemoration Development Director is literally on the line, was first to speak to the commissioners; reading from a prepared presentation that still lacks specificity and an operating budget.

Many of the plans of two years ago, when St Augustine had hopes of money from the State of Florida and a well-funded federal commission, supplemented by Olympics-scale contributions, some of which are still referred to today, included references to a staff of twelve devoted employees working towards implementation of licensing and marketing four-years-worth of events; the first year of which has been arguably lackluster.

As it is, the city payroll supports Ste. Claire and two full-time employees, with benefits; Jennifer Zuberer (who earns $48,393) and Charlie Seraphin (who earns $72,000) and city staff who have other assigned responsibilities to government operations — not the least of which is City Manager John Reagan.

We will likely see the first recognizable Spanish events that are most closely related to the 16th century age of discovery in 2013. Ste. Claire spoke of a royal visit — being careful to emphasize that the King and Queen have not confirmed a visit to St Augustine in their plans.

Next year’s commemoration of the Ponce de Leon discovery of Florida in 1513 is not limited to St Augustine, after all. The city’s legitimate claim did not occur until 52 years later, when Pedro Menendez founded what would survive as the oldest continuously operated settlement of European origin.

In any case, the Picasso pottery exhibit is planned for January. To further entice the royals, the Cathedral will dedicate its new bells and a replica of the baptismal font used to baptize Ponce de Leon. Should the Spanish Royal Family attend, David Drysdale, owner of the St Augustine Alligator Farm, and Federal 450th Commissioner Fr. Tom Willis are planning a reception.

Commissioner Leary, who received some criticism for a recent “letter to the editor” where he expressed disapproval and disappointment with the production of the 450th events, raised questions rooted in previously expressed concerns for the financial viability of the city’s current course. He wanted to talk budget and return on investment but met with little if any meaningful response.

Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline said, “You guys want to talk about financial returns and budgets and that stuff,” as if that were not important, in her view. The commissioner, who holds herself out as a conservative Republican, suggested that she was more concerned about, “Social capital — that’s what it’s all about,” leaving some who feel that the city is sending millions of dollars down a rat-hole, scratching their heads.

Leary intimated that some of Seraphin’s failure to raise funds for the commemoration events, besides having a limited offering of specific programs that can be articulated, may have to do with sponsors who are reluctant to contribute funds to a city — rather than a tax-deductible, charitable non-profit entity.

Leary asked, “Do we have an impediment to the collection of contributions by not having an entity that exists that can give tax-exempt benefit to a contribution?”

Nobody at the table wanted to have that discussion, as they are still stinging from the fraud and mismanagement suffered at the hands of Don Wallis and First America Foundation.

Leary brought up a non-profit organization to manage the 450th, comparing it to the direct support organization utilized by the University of Florida to manage the historic district properties once managed by the City.

Boles immediately slammed on the brakes. The conclusion was that, not only was there no clamor of sponsors wanting to contribute to the city’s commemoration if those donations would be tax-deductible.

Generally the commission felt that non-profit community support, that is not city directed or funded, is essential but not at hand.

An alliance between the Visitors Convention Bureau, using money from the St Johns County Tourist Development Council, in cooperation with the St Johns Cultural Council, was outlined by VCB President, Richard Goldman. Hundreds of thousands of bed tax dollars are being earmarked to advertise the events surrounding the 450th through the partnership.

No votes or action were taken by the commission, nor was the floor opened to public comment.

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