City gives UF license that excludes most local attractions

400-PASSPORT-VIC-KIOSKSome local attraction operators, who are members of the St. Augustine Attractions Association, are calling “foul” over a license agreement given by the City of St Augustine to UF Historic St Augustine, Inc — the direct support organization that acts as landlord over the state’s historic properties. The Association delivered an official letter of “non-support” to the City Manager’s office over terms of the license which they say allows an unfair competitive advantage to one private attraction operator.

Two of those 37 historic properties are Government House and the former Spanish Colonial Quarter property. In past years, the City earned the income from those properties — however, since October 2010 it has been the University of Florida, not the City of St Augustine, calling the shots and collecting the rent.

With great fanfare in 2010, after only a six-year run in Key West, Pat Croce relocated his “Pirate Soul Museum” to the former Christmas Shop and Tepee Town site on Avenida Menendez. With assistance from local attorney and mayor Joe Boles, Croce was quickly embraced in the community and promoted as “a millionaire businessman” capable of stimulating our tourism industry and willing to promote St Augustine as a vacation destination.

Within a year of Croce opening the “St Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum”, the city commission is told that, under the city’s management, they have lost “a million dollars, or more”, while trying to operate the Spanish Colonial Quarter. Further, Assistant City Manager Tim Burchfield and City Manager John Regan want approval to shut down the museum rather than pay rent to UF Historic St Augustine, the salaries of the employees required to continue operations, and other costs; the deficiency of which, against ticket sales, was being paid by city taxpayer’s.

374-COLONIAL-QUARTER-LOGOCity management gets their way. Some say not surprisingly, Croce prevails in a cozy, subjective bidding process with UF and wins the lease on the Spanish Colonial Quarter property adjacent to his pirate attraction. Soon thereafter, in a new, surprise agreement announced by UF, another lease to operate a gift shop, as well as the exhibit owned by the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, is awarded to Croce.

At the very time that Croce is complaining about financial losses operating his Colonial Quarter Museum, he was negotiating for control of the additional state-owned property. He convinces UF, the Mayor, and four commissioners, that his success is dependent on their cooperation, and cooperation from the National Park Service, to sell an exclusive three-way “explorer’s passport” that includes admission to the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, the Colonial Quarter Museum, as well as the First Colony exhibit at Government House. And further, Croce needs a location inside the newly refurbished and upgraded Visitor Information Center from which he can sell his tickets to all three attractions.

This new turn of events awakens a sleeping giant. Long before there was a Pat Croce in St Augustine, or a Mayor Boles, there was a St Augustine Attractions Association; primarily comprised of some of the city’s most influential families, and representing attraction operators who have supported the local St Augustine and St Johns County economy for generations.

300-VIC-AVE-HCNSince World War II, the city has owned the Visitor Information Center, and since July 2006, they have owned and operated the adjacent parking garage — a multi-million dollar investment of taxpayer funds to promote St Augustine as a premier vacation destination. All retail sales made at the Visitor Center are made through the city-owned gift shop.

The city has two operators of “hop-on-hop-off” shuttle transportation and tour services — Historic Tours of America who operate Old Town Trolley and Ripley Entertainment who operate the Red Trains. As official franchisees who pay a percentage fee to the city for each passenger ticket sold, each is afforded an option to rent an information booth inside the Visitor Center where maps and tickets are available for the attractions along their respective routes.

Never have attraction operators had permission to sell individual tickets for admission to their attractions within the Visitor Information Center — arguably where we make the most important “first impression” on our visitors; tourists who have chosen to explore St Augustine as part of their vacation plans.

Even when the St Johns County Chamber of Commerce operated the Visitor Center, private, locally owned attractions were allowed to place rack cards in unmanned “take one” displays — but not to set up a ticket booth. During those days, many St Augustine businesses maintained their membership in the Chamber of Commerce specifically for the privilege of placing rack cards or advertising brochures in the Visitor Center.

400-manned-brochure-kioskPresently, more modern multi-media displays adorn the walls and fixtures inside the Visitor Center. The rack cards still exist — advertising the locations of various attractions, their hours of operation, and ticket prices.

A financial staff member at the city opined that if the city was ever granted the ability to sell tickets for the Castillo at the Visitor Center, they would sell more tickets than the Castillo itself. Members of the Attractions Association agreed and noted that the city had some last minute and short lived success in selling a combination “passport” ticket from the Visitor Center that included admission to the Colonial Spanish Quarter — since that was an effort of the city, in a city owned building, for admission to a city operated attraction, the Attractions Association had no quarrel.

This new development is different.

Like the St Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum, which is owned by Croce’s limited liability company; the new Colonial Quarter Museum, its restaurants and bar, and the new First Colony museum and gift shop at Government House, are also privately owned.

400-COLONIAL-QUARTER-OPENSo, the question of fairness and competitive access to city-owned resources takes center stage. If we are now going to allow Pat Croce to sell admission to two of his three privately-owned museums inside the city-owned visitor center, why do we prohibit other attractions that have been part of the St Augustine landscape for decades, or centuries, the same right of access within the publically-owned building?

Advertising about the attractions operated by Croce imply that, together with the Castillo, the three-ticket Explorer’s Passport gets the visitor to the “authentic” historic sites that tell the “true” story of our Historic City. Language in the first memorandum concerning the plan says in the recitals that the city and university are the best attraction operators to trust to deliver “an accurate story about the City’s history”.

Is that being honest and accurate?

300-MISSION-CROSS-HCNAre other credentialed sites such as the Mission Nombre de Dios where we know that the first mass was celebrated by the Spanish explorers who settled our city in 1565, or the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park, where scholars have uncovered, documented and collected artifacts of the Timucaun Village of Seloy, that had survived for nearly 3,500 years prior until the brutal massacre at the hands of the European settlers that wiped out their entire civilization, any less part of the accurate story of the city’s history?

Several well respected local attraction owners, whose family have been benefactors of this community for two hundred years, caution the City of St Augustine and the University of Florida about “overstating” the actual historic significance of their 20th century attractions. “Do they really want to start comparing pedigrees?” one quipped.

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