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Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles -- St. Augustine's founder -- looked on approvingly Monday as 400 local residents in Flagler Auditorium applauded the enthusiasm, expertise and excellence of the 13 members of the St. Augustine 450th Commemoration Commission.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said the commission's purpose was to assist the oldest continuously occupied European-established city in the United States in presenting major celebrations in 2013, the 500th anniversary of Florida, 2014, the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Civil Rights Act and 2015, the city's 450th anniversary.
Nelson said he's excited about the possibility that St. Augustine will see visits by Pope Benedict XVI, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain and Queen Elizabeth II of England.
"Every school kid ought to know about the founding of his country," Nelson said. "Florida is a microcosm of the country, because, in large part, the country has moved to Florida."
Ken Salazar, secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, had appointed the board members.
"What a jewel!" Salazar called the city. "(St. Augustine's history) is the march of our country, the work of freedom and democracy....(But) the celebration is (also) about job creation. Most (people) who come to this special place bring their money. We're doing this because we realize that tourism is a major part of today's economy."
The Department of the Interior will work closely with the commission to make certain that the celebration is appropriate and honors the city.
Show me the money
The original outline for the St. Augustine 450th Commemoration Commission included financing of its celebrations and projects from the $500,000 promised annually by the Interior Department.
Officials in Jamestown, for example, received $400,000 a year during its 400th anniversary bash.
However, at Monday's meeting, not one commissioner, staff assistant or Secretary Salazar mentioned a word about money.
The question hung in the air: Even if the annual disbursement were approved, would it be likely that the promised funds would be available?
It remained unaddressed.
St. Augustine Commissioner Bill Leary said the board probably did discuss money, but out of the public's eye, perhaps at lunch.
"(The Sunshine Law) is a state law that does not apply to federal operating groups," Leary said. "This board was created to take federal money and spend it, accept grants or raise private money."
He said the Interior Department could use discretionary funds or "unobligated" funds, or it could ask for money from Florida's congressional delegation or from private individuals.
Private businesses "don't tend to be philanthropic entirely," he said, adding that naming rights might be something they might desire in return for contributions.
City of firsts
Cathedral Parish records in St. Augustine record the first birth of a child of European descent as occurring in 1566, a year after the city's founding. His name was Martin de Arquelles.
The birth of the first African American child here occurred in 1606. Her name was not recorded.
The city has the honor of the country's first Thanksgiving, first Catholic Mass, first free-black town of Fort Mose, first racially diverse community of Spanish, free blacks, Native Americans and Protestants, and first Christian mission at Nombre de Dios.
Kathleen Deagan, archeologist and distinguished research curator emerita of the Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville, said England and France had tried to settle Florida for 50 years before Pedro Menendez succeeded in 1565, just 72 years after Columbus arrived in the New World.
"Menendez brought 800 people, including 26 women and children," Deagan said. "The English in Jamestown brought 104 men. The Pilgrims (in Massachusetts) brought 102 people in 1620."
She said City Archeologist Carl Halbirt has been exploring the outline and evolution of 16th century St. Augustine and recently discovered the remains of a 1572 structure, the earliest evidence found of a parish church, located almost under the A1A Alehouse.
"St. Augustine was the original -- and in many ways the only true -- American melting pot, a notion that figures large in our national identity," Deagan said.
Only two board members were unable to attend the initial 450th meeting, former Florida Senator Bob Graham and former U.S. Representative, mayor of Atlanta and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young.
Salazar said he credits St. Augustine Mayor Joe Boles and other local leaders for bringing the 450th commission to the city.
After the introductory speeches ended and the board got down to business, its members unanimously elected businessman and National Park Foundation member Jay Kislak as chairman.
Following his nomination and election, Kislak said, "In a caucus earlier today, I expressed reservations about accepting this position. (But) I accept with great pleasure. I'm not the best but I'll do my best."
Boles and historic preservationist Katherine H. Dickenson were elected vice chairs.
According to David Vela, southeast regional director of the National Park Service and moderator during the organizational period, the board intends to harness "the hunger and passion that exists in the community" to tell the story of St. Augustine and Florida.
Willie Johns, a Seminole tribal leader from South Florida, told the commission during its question-and-answer period that his people wanted to be represented on the board.
"We'd hate to see a bunch of white boys tell our story," Johns said.
Afterward, he said the Seminole tribe had been asked to nominate someone for the commission.
But their financial disclosure forms didn't make the deadline.
St. Augustine Commissioner Bill Leary said the city "was and is still eager for the Seminole Tribe to be involved with the 450th. (But) we needed to get the commission moving. Eventually Secretary Salazar picked someone else to fill that seat."
That appointed person has also not completed the required paperwork.
The new Seminole tribal leader, James Billie, nominated Johns as the tribal representative.
Leary said the Seminoles could be involved as an appointed advisory committee to the commission.
Johns said, "We dropped the ball. We really want to be involved in teaching the history of Florida. We just have to get our guy on (the commission)."
The future of the past
So far the commission has not announced its next meeting, though Kislak said there would be one.
Leary said he has high hopes for the 450th Commission.
"I was like an expectant father at that first meeting," he said late Monday.
The board seemed encouraged by figures submitted by U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, that showed the Castillo de San Marcos receiving roughly 1.3 million visitors annually.
Mica, however wanted everyone to keep the planned Visitor Orientation Center, proposed for the Spanish Quarter, alive.
"I challenge you to go out and raise some dough (for the Visitor Center)," he said. "This is the oldest masonry fort in the U.S. We have to find our way out of this economic difficulty."
Nelson said, "This is a star-spangled committee. The history of this country is our Spanish heritage. They were here 42 years before the English. You see the history of the U.S. in the history of Florida."