St. Augustine Beach commissioners mull taking Pier Park off St Johns County’s hands

St. Augustine Beach Mayor Rich O’Brien and City Manager Max Royle met recently with St. Johns County Administrator Michael Wanchick and Commission Chair Henry Dean regarding the county’s Pier Park property, and what to do about it.

 

O’Brien and Royle recapped that discussion at the beach commission meeting Tuesday night.

According to Royle, the county wanted an official request from the city that the Wednesday farmers market be allowed to remain at the park an additional 90 days from the current expiration date, in order for the city to get its ducks in a row to possibly take over the property and any events there.

Wanchick and Royle have talked for months about transferring the title of the Pier Park property, including the parking lot, from the county to the city.

A transfer of title would be contingent on the parking lot remaining a parking lot, and would exclude the actual pier and visitor information center, which would remain the county’s responsibility.

Whether the city will continue having a farmers market operated at that location by the not-for-profit St. Augustine Beach Civic Association, which currently holds the contract with the county, is a separate matter.

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. Commissioners touched on the possibilities of charging for parking, reserving the volleyball courts or using the pavilion for special events.

O’Brien said the property in question has a market value of about $5 million, as well as an intrinsic value to residents and visitors. He said the property has “incredible” potential, with the right business model.

“I don’t want to see us five years from now, 10 years from now and have people say, ‘Why didn’t they take advantage of that opportunity?’” O’Brien said. “I think they would say that.”

Vice Mayor Undine George said her only concern is the long-term strategy, or lack thereof. She questioned the county’s willingness to take care of preservation of the pier once they’ve divested themselves of everything else around it.

O’Brien said the county’s made it clear they have no funding for the pier and no vision for the park.

Commissioner Donald Samora, sworn in on Monday, said it would be nice to have some more local control over the destiny of the park.

Commissioner Margaret England said the city should keep the county on the hook, somehow. She also expressed interest in taking the fire station property, adjacent, once the county builds a replacement facility. That could be years down the road, though.

Commissioner Maggie Kostka questioned why the county wasn’t negotiating the farmers market arrangement with the civic association directly, seeing as how they have a written agreement, at least for the time being.

George said she’d rather not get in the middle of that relationship and voiced her support for month-by-month renewals of the contract until the city takes over the property, at which point they could put out a request for proposals to operate the market. She said she didn’t want the city to come into the property with any standing long-term leases.

Royle suggested sticking with a letter to the county expressing interest, pending mutual agreeable terms, for the sake of continuing the process to the next step.

Commissioners ultimately provided consent to send a letter of continued interest in taking over the property.

At a joint meeting of the two local commissions in May, it was made clear the county doesn’t have the money for major upgrades to Pier Park, to say nothing of the pier itself. The county is operating with a deficit of more than $1 million in beach services funding, while facing a host of other financial hurdles.

Estimates for rebuilding the pier are between $10 million and $14 million. Officials from both governments said their agencies don’t have the money on their own to build a pier.

 

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