No more secretive collusion with the Ardids and Key International on any void-for-vagueness "Private/Public Partnership" (sic), subject of 2014 and 2017 meetings between maladroit St. Augustine Beach City Manager BRUCE MAX ROYLE, other-directed St. Johns County Administrator MICHAEL DAVID WANCHICK, and two successive Mayors of St. Augustine Beach, ANDREA SAMUELS and RICHARD BURTT O'BRIEN.
Posted December 22, 2017 05:35 am - Updated December 22, 2017 05:44 am
By JAKE MARTIN firstname.lastname@example.org
St. Augustine Beach’s possible takeover of county’s Pier Park still in the air; farmers market in limbo
CHRISTINA.KELSO@STAUGUSTINE.COM People walk to the beach from the packed St. Johns County Pier parking lot on June 29. The city of St. Augustine Beach is considering taking ownership of the lot and other parts of the property from the county.
PETER.WILLOTT@STAUGUSTINE.COM A man on a standup paddleboard travels under the St. Johns County Ocean and Fishing Pier in St. Augustine Beach on Thursday.
St. Johns County is looking to rid itself of the pier parking lot and its surroundings, minus the pier itself and the gift shop. The city of St. Augustine Beach has expressed interest in the property, but has yet to make a decision.
County Administrator Michael Wanchick says the parking lot will remain a parking lot either way and it will need to become a paid lot, without exemptions for retirees or residents, in order to remain sustainable for either government to manage and maintain.
“We’ve got to start minimizing or curtailing our losses and increasing our revenues,” he said at Tuesday’s commission meeting. “We’ve got to bring this in for a landing one way or another.”
Wanchick said the county’s Beach Services is losing $1 million a year and that $50,000 of that deficit is coming off the parking lot.
The county’s Parks and Recreation has already curtailed events sponsored by the county in Pier Park, and Wanchick said he’d like to do the same with the farmers market and other events “because it’s a parking lot.” He said the county also wants to implement an off-beach parking fee to recoup the costs of maintaining the property, but this consideration has been put on hold until the ownership question is resolved.
He said while there’s a “revenue component” to the county’s concerns, there’s also a plain lack of parking.
Wanchick said the county fields phone calls and emails “on a regular basis” about why the lot is used for special events, such as the Wednesday farmers market, and called it a “legitimate question.” He said he and staff are also concerned with the variances the city has allowed new development in the area around the pier with regard to parking and the effect that will have on the facility.
Additionally, Wanchick said the county deals with ADA complaints and other citizen complaints regarding the operation of the market by the St. Augustine Beach Civic Association, which has a long-standing contract with the county to manage the market and use the facility free of cost. He said the county’s legal office estimates it has put in $6,000 of staff time “just to manage” these complaints, and that does not include his time or that of County Attorney Patrick McCormack, or that of Beach Services.
Bill Jones, president of the Civic Association, told The Record on Thursday the county doesn’t give the Civic Association anything it wouldn’t give other non-profits running a farmers market. He said there have been other such markets elsewhere in the county that did not last as long as the one at the pier has and that didn’t pay rent to the county. He said the complaints are “bogus” and come entirely from a small group of individuals with a gripe against him and his organization.
Jones said he doesn’t know where else the market would be successful but the pier. But that doesn’t seem to align with the county’s vision.
Wanchick outlined two scenarios for commissioners.
Scenario One: The county retains ownership of the property, removes events from the parking lot and turns it back into a full-time parking lot, but with fees. He said the changes shouldn’t affect the Concerts by the Sea, which take place at the pavilion at Pier Park. He said the farmers market could be relocated to the St. Augustine Amphitheatre or elsewhere.
Scenario Two: The county gives the property to the city with the condition the parking lot remains a parking lot “and then they can operationalize it anyway they want, and they can deal with the ADA complaints and other complaints that have been coming in.”
“It’s become a very black and white issue,” he added.
Commissioner Paul Waldron said he doesn’t want to give the property away to St. Augustine Beach, which he said has had “ample time” to look at the logistics. He questioned what happens if the city takes it over, fails to do upkeep or can no longer maintain it and the property ends up back in the county’s hands in disrepair.
He said there are public-private partnerships the county can pursue. He also said the county should put out its own request for proposals for the Wednesday farmers market to be held in a new location, such as the Amphitheatre.
“If it’s the same group, so be it, but they have to pay,” Waldron said. “If there’s a complaint, they’re liable.”
Commission Chair Henry Dean expressed interest in conveying the property to the city because the farmers market has become “sort of an iconic figure” to the area’s residents and visitors. He said vendors rely on that market for a portion of their living expenses. He defended the location of the market due to its “unique” setting, overlooking the ocean, but also acknowledged parking is at a premium.
Dean said he was confident the city would take good care of the property under the conditions and restrictions to be set by the county. He said the city has told him and Wanchick it will try to come up with a way to make a public-private partnership happen or find another solution.
“We’ll have our hands full with the county pier,” Dean told fellow commissioners. “This doesn’t even address the pier issues.”
Estimates for rebuilding the aging pier are between $10 million and $14 million. Officials from both governments have said their agencies don’t have the money on their own to build a pier.
The future of the pier and parking lot were discussed about six months ago at a joint meeting between the two governments. The city continues to ask for more time to consider the potential conveyance of the Pier Park property.
At the Dec. 5 meeting of the St. Augustine Beach Commission, City Manager Max Royle said he and his staff would be crunching the numbers on costs of managing and maintaining the volleyball courts, pavilion, and parking lot. He said the intent would be to keep the area “as it is today.”
“We can’t afford to do striping and painting, and landscaping and all that,” he said.
Royle said the city has to determine what it would charge the people using those facilities in order to recoup the costs and build up a reserve for larger capital expenses later on. Beach commissioners touched on the possibilities of charging for parking, reserving the volleyball courts or using the pavilion for special events.
Meanwhile, the Wednesday farmers market is in a kind of limbo.
County commissioners on Tuesday unanimously voted to once again extend the county’s contract with the Civic Association to continue managing the market, but they added a $500 weekly fee in order to recoup costs. The extension is for two months, from the end of January to the end of March.
During this time, the county is hoping the city will come back with a decision on how it would like to proceed. Wanchick said if the city wants to take over the property, it can then continue with the Civic Association or put out its own request for proposals for management of the market.
Commissioner Jeb Smith said there’s a cost that needs to be recouped, but he wanted to be sure they’re working with a “legitimate cost.” Dean expressed some concern about negotiating a two-month agreement with fees, predicting the county would face a bit of “headwind” with the Civic Association over the holidays.
Commissioner Jimmy Johns said he could understand maybe 15 years ago the parking lot may not have been used to the extent it is today, hence the long-standing contract with no fees going back to the county. However, he said the county now needs to be breaking even on its quality-of-life assets.
Commissioner Jay Morris said breaking even, at least in the private sector, means you’re dead in the water before you know it.
“I would charge a minimum $500 a week, which I think is going to shock the hell out of them,” he said. “It’s been a free ride and then, just for two months, to do that … But I’m all in favor of that.”
Morris said he doesn’t think the city will ultimately take the property. He said either way he agrees with Wanchick’s assessment that parking fees are coming.
Jones said in a letter Wednesday to Dean and fellow commissioners his organization was “grateful” for the extension, but concerned about the quick math that led to the $500-a-week figure, down from “what appeared to be a very arbitrary number of $1,000 a week, which is 100 percent plus of our gross weekly revenue.”
“After some discussion, the final number ended up being 50 percent of our total gross revenue,” Jones continued. “This number is unreasonable when compared to the 30 percent figure charged to the operators of the Saturday market.”
He also took issue with his non-profit being charged a higher percentage than the for-profit running the Saturday market.
“If we had been aware this item was going to be discussed, we could have made the Commissioners aware of this discrepancy,” Jones wrote, requesting the item be revisited in January.
Wanchick had clarified to commissioners prior to the vote the Civic Association’s use of the parking lot was not fully responsible for the $50,000-a-year deficit in maintaining it. He said “only a portion” of that could be attributable to the farmers market, but didn’t provide an estimate.
The item was not advertised prior to Tuesday’s meeting, but was instead tacked onto the end of the agenda at Wanchick’s request at the head of the meeting. Additionally, no public comment was invited, although this was toward the end of a lengthy meeting, and it is unclear whether any members of the public were even in attendance.
Jones told The Record he felt the market has become a “political football” in the back and forth between the county and the city.
He said the Civic Association approached the county with an offer to help provide paved parking for as many as 65 vehicles along a public easement on Pope Road, but never heard back. Instead, within the last couple months, “No Parking” signs went up.