An extreme race was planned for Princess Place Preserve, but the county canceled it — sacrificing the economic windfall — after an outpouring of resident opposition.
Imagine an extreme race at Princess Place Preserve: 6,000 runners scaling walls and jumping over fire in an 8-mile course. Imagine giving a company — Spartan Race — full and unimpeded access to tear up this county-owned land, which was purchased with taxpayer dollars designed to preserve it as environmentally sensitive land forever. Now, imagine tax dollars being spent to subsidize such an event.
None of that will happen.
According to some, it was a major victory for the residents of the community, and a major victory for Princess Place. According to the county administration, it was a missed opportunity and was the result of a major misunderstanding.
The usual process
Matt Dunn was hired in January 2014 to help attract events — group business — to Flagler County. Because of the money that tourists bring with them, it’s a competitive industry for the venues.
“These organizations have a tremendous amount of options,” Dunn said in an interview on Aug. 24. “I’m going to a conference tomorrow where 500 destinations will be there.”
Once Dunn recruits an event and gets a verbal commitment, he then analyzes the projected financial benefit and presents the information to the Tourist Development Council. The TDC comprises nine members — some elected officials and some appointed residents — who review the proposal and make a recommendation to the Flagler County Board of County Commissioners for funding. The County Commission, in a public meeting, can then vote to approve the spending.
During this process, Dunn works with the event planners and the county attorney to create a contract that will be acceptable to all parties. He is not authorized to sign any contracts until both the attorney approves it, and the County Commission approves it.
In the case of the Spartan Race, Dunn said, “there was no deviation from the pattern, the process that we’re supposed to follow.”
How it ended
On Aug. 19, FlaglerLive.com published a story on the TDC presentation regarding Spartan Race. The story included the draft contract with the county, in which Spartan Race acknowledges that the event “may cause substantial wear and tear.”
By its nature, Princess Place Preserve was created to be protected from such wear and tear, and many residents contacted county commissioners to express their concern for what they considered to be an abuse of the preserve, the the management plan of which states the following: "Outdoor recreational facilities including nature trails and interpretive displays shall be provided. The facilities shall be developed in a manner that allows the general public reasonable access for observation and appreciation of the natural resources on the Project Site without causing harm to those resources."
Still, County Commissioner Barbara Revels said, when she goes to Princess Places she finds the place mostly empty, so she wasn’t aware that so many people were so passionate about it. "I don’t think anybody in the county realized how much community backlash would have come out of it," she said. "I think it’s wonderful that we had that kind of response."
Pierre Tristam, editor of FlaglerLive.com, wrote the initial story on Spartan Race, and was the starting point for the discussion in the community.
Tristam said it was one of two stories that he could remember having an impact of this magnitude in the community. He said it built momentum in part because of a Facebook page created by Kendall St. Jacques, which quickly gained more than 1,000 followers, all hoping to stop the event and protect Princess Place.
Tristam said his story also attracted the attention of Audubon and the Florida Wildlife Federation.
When asked if he was aware of any Spartan Race opposition that did not originally stem from the FlaglerLive.com article, Dunn responded, “None.”
As a result of the public outcry online and in a flurry of emails and phone calls to the county commissioners over the weekend, the county took the unusual step of announcing — before any public discussion at a County Commission meeting — that the deal with Spartan Race was going to be canceled before it ever came to be. There will be no extreme obstacle race at Princess Place.
Why Princess Place in the first place?
In Revels’ view, although the event approval process appeared rushed, the end result was proper. “The administration erred on the side of caution, to say, ‘Let’s just back out of this right now, so we can put everybody’s mind at ease,’” she said. Referring to County Administrator Craig Coffey, she added, “If I was in Craig’s shoes, I would have done exactly the same thing.”
Because Dunn is new in the community, she said, it’s likely that no one explained the restrictions on Princess Place to him.
However, Coffey and Dunn agreed from the beginning that there could be a way to make Princess Place work for the race, despite its environmental restrictions and management plan. In fact, it would be quite an achievement to lure to Flagler County an event that was designed for the Jacksonville market.
“We don’t have a lot of facilities,” Dunn said. “So we’re being as creative as possible to bring in as much as possible.”
In the past, Princess Place has hosted large events, including orienteering events, high school cross country races, a Native American festival, and the annual Creekside Festival. None of those events have seemed out of harmony with Princess Place, Dunn suggested, so why not consider the venue for Spartan Race?
What about traffic?
At the most recent Creekside Festival, Princess Place hosted 12,000 visitors — far more than the projected total traffic for Spartan Race.
But because Creekside was spread over two days, there were never more than about 1,000 vehicles parked at Princess Place at one time, Coffey said. Because the Spartan Race is on one day, there could be 3,000 cars at once.
To solve that problem, Coffey suggested parking about 2,000 cars at the Florida Agricultural Museum. The course of the race could stretch between the museum and Princess Place.
What about the obstacles?
Spartan Race is famous for mud pits and climbing walls and fire obstacles. It’s an extreme course that is designed to test extreme athletes.
In his story on FlaglerLive.com, Pierre Tristam writes that Spartan creates “artificial obstacles that radically alter the landscape.”
But according to County Administrator Craig Coffey, the draft contract that Dunn presented to the TDC was just that — a draft. It was written by Spartan Race without any input from the county and, according to Dunn is only the starting point for negotiations.
“There was never a signed contract with Spartan Race,” Coffey said. “It was written in their favor, but we get hundreds of those contracts written in favor of other events, and we wind up changing them all the time. Anyone that’s asking for money that we’re working with, we do all kinds of changes.”
We run bulldozers on those fire lines. Is that going to be worse than runners?
— Craig Coffey, county administrator
In that way, it’s premature to conclude that the race would cause “substantial wear and tear” or include “obstacles that would radically alter the landscape” or in any way do environmental damage to the preserve, Coffey said.
There are already 29 miles of trails that are used for fire lines, he said. “We run bulldozers on those fire lines. Is that going to be worse than runners?”
Another obstacle that is promoted in some Spartan Race videos is a fire jump. Coffey said, “It’s like jumping over a little campfire of coals,” adding that it’s not more extreme than activity that already takes place at Princess Place. “We have campfires all the time with our campers,” he said.
And the Spartan Race organizers were in agreement with the ways the county had suggested to minimize wear and tear with obstacles, according to Dunn.
“We were going to move to a Founders Race format,” Dunn said. “Under that format, the obstacles are less intrusive. It would have been OK.”
Among the obstacles would be a hay-bale maze. Another would involve filling up a bucket of sand and carrying it for a quarter mile, then dumping it back into the same pile of sand.
“There was never a time where we would agree to digging mud pits or anything of that nature whatsoever,” Dunn said. “ … I want to stress that at no time was there ever a discussion about anything that would be against the environmental plan for Princess Place, and Spartan Race knew that from the beginning.”
He added: “We were never going to be anywhere near the lodge. That was something that was discussed face to face with our team and Spartan Race.”
The details of the obstacles were not finalized before the race was canceled.
— Pierre Tristam, editor of FlaglerLive, on hosting a Spartan Race at Princess Place
In a later interview with the Palm Coast Observer, however, Tristam dismissed the county’s attempts to mitigate the obstacles as “spin.”
Princess Place and a Spartan Race “are simply incompatible,” he said. Spartan Race’s brand is based on providing an extreme experience and wouldn’t be able to avoid delivering the obstacles.
Dunn’s presentation to the TDC predicted that the Spartan Race would deliver an economic impact of $3.9 million to the county. With about 6,000 runners and 2,000 spectators staying an average of 2.4 days, a lot of money is spent. In addition, Spartan Race has a budget to purchase building supplies locally and to hire local groups, such as sports teams or Boy Scouts, to work at the race. He used those numbers to justify giving Spartan Race a $25,000 incentive to host the event at Princess Place.
That economic impact will not come to Flagler County because, while it’s possible Spartan Race could agree to a different venue in the county, the company is opening up the bids to anywhere in the Jacksonville area, and it’s likely that it could end up outside of the county.
Meanwhile, the race registrations are closed online at Spartan.com.
To Tristam, the cancellation is good news. If a Spartan Race is held on preserved land in Flagler County, he said, much is at stake: “The image of your county and your environmental legacy is going to be corrupted because, ‘Well, yes, in Flagler County they do have these (protected lands), but they also have these allowances which make you wonder if they really believe in these preserves.’”
The Florida Wildlife Federation issued a statement echoing Tristam's view: “We are pleased to see the county respond so swiftly to the community’s outrage over the idea of holding this massive event at Princess Place. They could have delayed that decision for a public hearing, but they listened to all the emails and phone calls and nipped it in the bud."
The federation's president, Manley Fuller, added this in a press release: “Areas like Princess Place are getting rarer. We need to ensure their sustainability."
Meanwhile, Dunn is on the road, looking for more sports events to bring to Flagler County.
“It’s OK, it didn’t work out,” he concluded about Spartan Race, maintaining that he followed the process that had been laid out by the county for attracting events. “It’s an honorable way we go about doing it. … This is the life we’ve chosen, being in the public eye, and we will get through this and we will be much better on the other side.”