At the St Johns County commission meeting today, two agenda items concerned requests from the City of St Augustine for their September Gentlemen of the Road concert event; they consumed the morning session with mixed public comment but unanimous commission support.
Item (2) dealt with a request from the city to pay $50,000 in consulting fees to the county; accounting for what was described as “soft costs” by County Administrator Michael Wanchick. Item (3) dealt with a request from the city for a grant of $129,485 from Arts, Culture and Heritage bed tax funds to cover the cost of renting 43-of-58 shuttle buses needed to operate a satellite parking plan for the concert.
Questions from commissioners were asked of Executive Director of the Tourist Development Council, Glenn Hastings, who introduced each of the items to the Board. Commissioners also asked St Augustine City Manager John Regan to come to the podium to answer some specific questions about how TDC Category II reserve funds are going to be spent.
At one point in the questioning, Commissioner Bennett stopped Regan from speaking in generalities and asked for a “yes or no” answer to a question about reimbursement of funds to the county; should the transportation system make a profit.
Bennett also pressed the question, brought up in public comment by community activist B.J. Kalaidi, as to whether or not the city actually had a signed contract from the concert promoter, AC Entertainment. It seems they don’t; however, project manager and City Comptroller Mark Litzinger, as well as Regan, told Historic City News editor Michael Gold that as soon as addendums concerning the footprint of the venue and how certain reimbursable expenses will be paid are concluded, they will forward signed copies for our readers — expected to be before the end of the week.
In the matter of the consulting agreement, it was learned that Wanchick was the person who initiated the request for compensation from the city; after he learned the extent of Cultural Events Division resources being devoted to project. Wanchick reported that Ryan Murphy and others in the department had already expended a great deal of effort to get this far in the process. “It’s like you’ve already done this work — do you want to be paid for it?” Wanchick asked commissioners, rhetorically.
An underlying issue for city residents, some commissioners in the city, and county, raised its head a few times this morning. “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission,” one member of the audience said. Commissioner Stevenson observed that, before Murphy signed on to do the work, the County Administrator should have been involved, rather than after the fact. “I would have liked to see the contract before the work was done,” Stevenson said.
County Commission Chairman, Jay Morris, explained that he sits on the Tourist Development Council. He confessed that he is the only one that doesn’t have any hospitality and lodging industry experience. “Mumford and Sons means nothing to me,” Morris told Regan while he was at the podium. “The last time I went to a concert was to hear Peter, Paul and Mary.” And, although he could not say that the outcome would have been any different, he thought that the grant request should have come forward for consideration before it was “a done deal”.
Vice Chairman Bill McClure said his two main questions had to do with finance and legal. His interest was in seeing that the $50,000 income from the city be applied directly to the Amphitheatre account and not lost in general revenue. He also had hesitations about legal liability for personal injuries or other claims against the concert event, if the county enters into a contract for services with the city. County Attorney Patrick McCormack responded saying that, with any contract, there attaches a certain amount of risk.
A considerable discussion of indemnification followed. Semantics became important, with the county legal staff recommending substitutions of words like “assist” and “expertise” contained in the draft resolution. McCormack suggested words like “advise” and “experience” as appropriate alternatives. Instead of “operational” or “production”, where they appear in the contract, they will be changed to “planning”.
Public comments from Cultural Council member, Tommy Bledsoe, and Dolphin Drive resident Jeff Goff, supported the event and supported the idea of the county sharing in the risk of the event, since they saw the county as sharing in the reward. Bledsoe, who is employed by the St Johns County School District, said “I’m concerned about how arms-length you are getting.” Goff, who is a city resident, admitted he was still reading the material; but felt he wanted to show support for the idea of the county sharing in the city’s risk.
Former St Augustine Mayor, George Gardner, remarked that he was “astounded” that the commission, at that point, had spent 30-minutes even discussing diverting liability, “You will clearly receive the benefits, it is only fair that you should share in the liability.”
County Commission District 4 candidate, Merrill Roland, expressed concern for appropriate accommodations for the handicapped and disabled — specifically a rumor that the parking garage would be charging vehicles tagged with handicap access credentials a $40 parking fee; which John Regan says is not in the plan.
Resolution 2013-164, to accept $50,000 as payment for consulting services, was made, with appropriate terminology changes, by Commissioner Ron Sanchez, seconded by Rachael Bennett, and approved unanimously.
The Tourist Development Council, on a split vote, 6-to-1 with Fred Cozby dissenting, approved the $129,485 grant. Hastings told Historic City News that Cozby objected to the funds not being used for advertising and publicity. The majority, according to Hastings, felt that $65,000-$75,000 in new bed tax would be generated by the event, since the majority of the ticketholders do not live locally and will travel. Hastings also threw out a projection of $1.8 million in food, beverage, and retail economic impact on the area over four days. Hastings said that because so many of the 25,000 expected are from other states and countries, the request for a grant does have, in his opinion, a sufficient promotional element. Commissioner Bennett had questioned if the grant request should have been from Category IIII funds.
Regan remains more optimistic. He quoted a $4.5 million dollar impact from the concert, but promised a formal impact statement at the conclusion of the event. “Our goal is to break even,” Regan told the commissioners. He admitted that this was the first event of its kind for the City of St Augustine and that he and staff are still learning.
“Actually, Fourth of July is a bigger event than this for the City,” Regan said. “Memorial Day is bigger, Nights of Lights is bigger. What we’ve never tried to do is put that many people in one place.”
In public comments on the TDC grant request, Kalaidi returned to the podium to say that she hopes “all goes well”, but she has her doubts. She cited previous noise violation citations at a 2010 event on West King Street, the concerns of neighborhood associations, and said she wanted to see a detailed breakdown of the $50,000, including who it was paid to, as well as the $129,485, and who it was paid to.
Roland returned before the vote to thank the commission for clarification of the handicap vote, to question the city’s negotiation skills in light of the Troy, Ohio agreement that required the use of no tax money whatsoever, and, he realized that the commission was concerned how many of the concertgoers are going to come back, a concern he says he shares. “I, too, am concerned how many are going to come back … for court appearances.”
Commissioner Stevenson moved that the grant request for the city be approved, Bennett seconded. The request was approved unanimously. Regan spoke to Gold after the vote, and said, emphatically, that the questions asked make him smarter and better. And, even though getting to “revenue neutral” will be hard, the city is learning lessons; like how to build a smarter public transportation system.
In addition to Regan and Litzinger, St Augustine Chief of Police Loran Lueders, Fire Chief Mike Arnold, and City Attorney Ron Brown attended the meeting with other city staffers.