City okays favored use of Visitor Center

UF-HISTSAUG_8877On a 4-0 vote by members of the St Augustine City Commission Monday night, a Memorandum of Agreement was approved that will establish a kiosk in the Visitor Center where tickets will be sold by the privately owned Colonial Quarter Museum and the University’s new First Colony exhibit, opening in the renovated Government House.

Historic City News readers are questioning whether the city is overstepping its mission to protect the health, welfare, and safety of St Augustine residents; instead getting too involved in the attraction business. Some have cited the money lost on the recent Picasso exhibit and Mumford concert as examples of money better spent cleaning up the city’s brown water, repairing deteriorating streets, and completing deferred maintenance items — some of which have been ignored for years.

The four-page agreement between the city and the University of Florida Historic St Augustine, the Direct Support Organization that manages the State-owned historic properties in St Augustine, was submitted by Assistant City Manager Tim Burchfield and was attached to the consent agenda for approval, without discussion.

That process works well for day-to-day transactions that technically require commission approval but could otherwise be handled by decision of the City Manager, alone. This controversial proposal hardly fits that description, was pulled by the commission, and, according to Vice-Mayor Nancy Sikes-Kline, was given “considerable discussion”.

“It’s simply a matter of who gets to our guests first,” one attraction operator told local Historic City News reporters, if we agreed not to publish their name. “We’re all competing for a slice of the same pie and vacationers have limits on their travel and entertainment budgets.”

We were told that a number of high profile attraction owners are unhappy that another private operator be given the opportunity to sell their tickets at the very spot where a majority of St Augustine visitors start planning their day or weekend in town. The concern is that Pat Croce, the operator of the Colonial Quarter and adjacent pirate museum, who leases space from the UF direct support organization, gets to sell admission to his business in tandem with the new UF operated government house attraction.

The City of St Augustine lost control of the former Colonial Spanish Quarter Museum; part of 37 historic properties and parking lots located on St. George Street, Cuna Street, Treasury Street, Aviles Street, Spanish Street and Charlotte Street that are owned by the State of Florida. Since October 1, 2010, it has been the University of Florida, not the City of St Augustine, calling the shots.

But it is the City of St Augustine that owns the Visitor Information Center on Castillo Drive, as well as the Historic Downtown Parking Facility — and there’s the rub.

“Why is a brand new exhibit at government house or brand new attraction in the Quarter more important to the visitor’s understanding of the history of the City than, say, the Lighthouse Museum or Fountain of Youth Archeological Park?,” one attraction operator asked during a conference call with Historic City News editor Michael Gold yesterday.

There were also concerns expressed that the city is creating an unfair restraint of trade against those attractions who are not allowed to sell admission to their attractions at the critical Visitor Center location. A previously allowed reselling of horse-drawn carriage licenses by the city created a defacto monopoly for one private business owner in St Augustine — that did not end well for anyone involved.

Also at issue is the open-ended approval to bring the National Park Service into the deal; allowing admission to the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument to be sold in a “passport” along with the Colonial Quarter and First Colony exhibit and providing for revenue sharing in the form of commissions to be paid on those tickets.

That’s not an issue at the moment, since the federal government shutdown has put the Castillo operations on ice and the attraction is not open to the public.

Another criticism voiced was that the language of the agreement, itself, could lead a reader to infer that somehow the University, Colonial Quarter, and City of St Augustine were the best attraction operators to trust to deliver “an accurate story about the City’s history”. That choice of words, referring to the anointed attractions as “key components” and accurate storytellers has some other privately owned and privately funded attraction operators crying “foul”.

The bones of contention are many, but to imply that private attractions are somehow not necessary to an understanding of the city’s history or that they are not telling “an accurate story” about the City’s history, are insulting and erroneous.

Photo credits: © 2013 Historic City News archive photograph

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