The question at stake: Should events that are popular locally — but unlikely to draw many tourists — get public tourist development money?
Flagler County regularly spends public dollars to help make big events like Flagler Beach's Fabulous Fourth happen. The rationale? That money will be returned to the community — sometimes many times over — when out-of-towners spend money at local businesses.
But for some events that seek county tourism funding, the potential tourism impact is less clear. That was the case with two Bunnell events that applied for $1,500 grants through the county’s Tourist Development Council: Christmas in Bunnell, slated to take place on Dec. 18; and the Bunnell Festival — formerly called the Potato Festival — scheduled for May 14.
The TDC didn’t support either grant application. But county commissioners, concerned that Bunnell could interpret a denial as a snub, and noting the events' "quality of life" impact, approved both grants anyway during a Nov. 2 commission meeting.
“We have a history of respecting and recognizing all of our municipalities and what they have to offer,” Commissioner George Hanns said at the meeting. “Maybe we need to take another look at the grant criteria. … We don’t want to offend anyone in Bunnell.” The rules for the grant applications aren’t always clear, Hanns said, and “Maybe it wasn’t clear to (the applicants).”
County Commissioner Nate McLaughlin, a TDC member, explained that the TDC had not explicitly voted against the events at a recent TDC meeting. Rather, no one on the TDC had made a motion in favor of them.
"At the end of the day, (the application) has to be related to tourism, and it has to bring people in from other than the municipality … My concern would be setting a precedent that we really don’t want to go forward with in the future."
— Nate McLaughlin, Flagler County commissioner
But at the commission meeting, he said he’d back the Bunnell Festival’s application, calling it a regional festival that “will bring folks into the county.” As for the Christmas celebration, he said, “I see that the Christmas in Bunnell is more of a municipal issue; I struggle myself with how that would fall under a tourist development situation.”
Commissioner Barbara Revels said that cities pay into the pool of money that is used for the grants. She thought both events should be funded.
“To me, the cities for the most part produce the TDC funds out of their communities,” she said. She noted that one of the grant's conditions was an enhancement of quality of life.
County Administrator Craig Coffey said the county plans to delete that “quality of life” language in the future, “Because you cannot fund events just to enhance quality of life. You can only fund events if they’re tourism-related. And that’s got to be the only benchmark you use.”
The county has approved both of the Bunnell events for tourist development funding in previous years, Coffey said, although the Christmas celebration was ultimately cancelled because of a lack of money.
“We struggle with this, and this is a tough one,” Coffey said. “Because what is a ‘tourism draw’? If it’s 10 people, that’s not much of a tourism draw. If it’s 1000, or 2000 people like Fabulous Fourth, it’s a little different.”
McLaughlin said he was concerned about setting a bad precedent.
"A lot more people will come here and put ‘heads in beds’ when they have a well-rounded community. ... And the way we have this is we have some great little events that happen in various communities. And I believe that this type of funding should continue.”
—Barbara Revels, Flagler County commissioner
“You all know there’s no bigger fan of Bunnell than myself,” he said. But, “at the end of the day, (the application) has to be related to tourism, and it has to bring people in from other than the municipality. … My concern would be setting a precedent that we really don’t want to go forward with in the future.”
Revels thought short-sighted the idea of only using tourism funding for events likely to bring in out-of-county visitors.
“We’ve been making grants since this has started under the name ‘quality of life,’” she said. “You are not going to get tourists to come to the county strictly because there’s a soccer tournament. Yes, those players will come. But a lot more people will come here and put ‘heads in beds’ when they have a well-rounded community that has community events all over the county, no matter what city it’s in. And I think people come here because of a well-rounded community, and the way we have this is we have some great little events that happen in various communities. And I believe that this type of funding should continue.”
Revels noted that both of the Bunnell applications were in a grant category that provides relatively small amounts of money and does not require applicants to provide proof that their events draw tourists — evidence that can be hard for small organizations to gather.
The County Commission voted unanimously to support the $1,500 grant for the Bunnell Festival. It voted 4-1, with McLaughlin dissenting, to support the $1,500 grant for Christmas in Bunnell.