Some commissioners thought the visitor center, as proposed, would be wasteful spending. Others thought it could help drive tourists to local attractions.
Flagler County's tourism department thinks Flagler County should have a visitor center, and that it should be in Flagler Beach, near the planned downtown hotel site on East Moody Boulevard.
"If we build a very, very expensive tourist destination center, that is all money that could, and should, go for capital projects. I just think it needs to be reasonable."
— ERIC COOLEY, Flagler Beach city commissioner
"We are going to find opportunities where gaps exist to support the current experiences available in our community, and create new ones," Tourism Director Amy Lukasik said at a March 10 City Commission meeting. "... It's important to develop those multiple streams of revenue."
Lukasik said the tourism department would be more able to support initiatives in Flagler Beach if it has a center there.
"If we are here, it's a much easier justification for us to help," she said. "It's a very heavy lift and very difficult to sell ... why we need to do X, Y and Z in Flagler Beach if we're not here in the community."
But Flagler Beach commissioners are divided, with some saying the tourism department's $1.5 million proposal is excessive.
Commissioner Eric Cooley said that increased tourism in the city adds costs for which the city isn't compensated — for instance, additional stress on the city's infrastructure.
"We get stuck with the bill. We have to clean up after them, we have to do all the repairs on all the wear and tear," he said. "80% of people that come to here come to Flagler Beach, and only for Flagler Beach. ... We as a city have to carry all of these costs."
"People are coming here, and the only industry we have, unfortunately, is tourism."
— KEN BRYAN, Flagler Beach city commissioner
Money spent on the center, he said, could be going to other things.
"That's money that can also go to Flagler Beach, and it's not going to," Cooley said. "It's going to go to driving more people to Flagler Beach that we're still going to pay for. ... And we're not getting anything for it. If we build a very, very expensive tourist destination center, that is all money that could, and should, go for capital projects. I just think it needs to be reasonable."
He added that the proposed plot of land isn't large enough for the tourism department to add all the features Lukasik had proposed.
The tourism department's proposed visitor center would feature educational presentations on the local environment and history, a gift shop, events featuring local businesses, and ecotourism packages.
Commissioner James Sherman suggested further analysis to determine to what degree a visitor center could help the city.
Commissioner Jane Mealy noted that the tourism department is its own entity, and can buy land in Flagler Beach just like any other entity.
"What do we have to do with that? It's private property," Mealy said. "They're not a branch in the city."
"Do you not know the comments of the residents?" Mayor Suzie Johnston said. "It has a lot to do with us. Our residents — it's something that doesn't sit well with them. So therefore, it makes it all about us."
"It's a vacant lot. The people who own it have the right to sell it to whoever they want to sell it to," Mealy replied. "So again, I don't understand what it has to do with us. If they want to build it ... what right would we have to say that you can't buy it? I don't know why we're having this whole conversation."
Only three members of the public spoke about the proposed center during the meeting's public comment period. They were divided: One man said a big visitor center would attract too many people, another said it could benefit businesses, and a third said his position was between that of the other two speakers.
Commissioner Ken Bryan disagreed with Cooley's assertion that the city wouldn't benefit from the proposed visitor center.
When Bryan travels, he said, he researches designations online, but a visitor center is still helpful.
"If I go to that visitor center, then I can get the information I need without having to go all over town to look for it," Bryan said.
Bryan said that a lot of people have told him that they don't want more people coming to Flagler Beach.
"But people are coming here," he said, "and the only industry we have, unfortunately, is tourism. And without those tourists, we're not going to be sustainable."
Cooley said his objection was to the proposed visitor center's scale and expense, not to the notion of locating a visitor center in Flagler Beach.
"If we can do it in a in a reasonable way, it's I think it's a huge hit for the city," Cooley said.