By Rhonda Parker
St. Augustine – “A game-changer” is what St. Augustine Commissioner Bill Leary called his recent trip to Washington D.C. to discuss the city’s planned 450th Celebration.
Leary and the city’s Program Director Dana Ste. Claire traveled to the nation’s capital September 15, where they not only received confirmation of a visit by Spanish royalty from Spain’s Ambassador, but also met with the Smithsonian curator and had lunch at the library of Congress. A partnership with the national museum to bring in rare historical artifacts and exhibits was put on the table. Also suggested as a possibility – that America’s Oldest City could become the official site of the 2015 Pan-American Conference, which has a bidding process similar to the World’s Fair and Olympics for hosts.
“I realized, they’re thinking big,” Leary told fellow commissioners at a workshop on Monday.
Leary said the 450th Celebration could bring national and international attention to the city.
“We were the contact point for European culture in the Americas. What happened here was significant. You could say that it changed the course of human history,” he said.
Leary promoted the idea of bringing in an outside director for event planning and marketing, and spoke his concern about whether a city the size of St. Augustine, with its limited resources, actually had the ability to pull off an event that might have global impact.
Currently, city staff is handling 450th event planning after several failed attempts to bring in local organizers, the last being a non-profit committee of citizens and business owners called First America, Inc. that wound up costing the city to the tune of over $200,000.
While most of the money has now been paid back to the city, officials have admitted the experience may have put a damper on enthusiasm for the 450th within the community, and amongst budget-conscious staff and commission members.
In a separate interview, City Manager John Regan indicated that it would be up to the commission to decide if an outside coordinator should be brought in, but pointed out that Jamestown had over 70 people devoted to planning their 400th celebration at this stage. St. Augustine currently has two staff members. Along with Ste. Claire, who is the city’s reassigned Heritage Tourism Director, recently hired Flagler College graduate Jennifer Zuberer was introduced as Communications Coordinator for the 450th at the workshop. The city has been slated by an act of Congress to receive $300,000 in federal money to put toward the celebration, of which $175,000 are now committed toward the salaries of Ste. Claire and Zuberer.
At the workshop, Leary stated frankly, “I don’t feel comfortable with managing the 450th.” But he added, “This in no way implies that the City Manager and his staff are doing a bad job, but they already have a lot on their plate. They do have a city to run.”
Mayor Joe Boles seemed in agreement, commenting later that in spite of the First America “fiasco”, he was not opposed to further discussion of bringing in an outside coordinator.
Commissioner Errol Jones also commented, “I’ll admit we’ve all had concerns, but I see the potential for something truly great here. To attract this kind of attention to our city could have far-reaching benefits for our business owners and residents, but we need to understand the potential magnitude of this event and think accordingly.”
Boles – who serves on the 450th National Committee – discussed the possibility of partnership with that entity, not only to conduct a nationwide search, but potentially help with the salary it could take to draw a coordinator with the level of experience needed. However, Boles felt the person should agree to live locally during the next three years of planning.
It was decided that the issue of hiring an outside coordinator could be revisited by the commission at their October 10 meeting.
Other announcements made by Leary at the workshop include participation in the 450th by the Seminole Tribes of Florida, who want to plan a “healing ceremony” at the Castillo de San Marcos, and exhibits by the national museums that include original documents pertaining to the early St. Augustine settlement, a hand-colored map of the city and surrounding area used by Sir Francis Drake, and letters that contain warnings of pirates by founder Don Pedro Menendez.
An online exhibit from the Library of Congress featuring some of the Jay Kislak collection, some of which could travel to St. Augustine for exhibition at the city’s 450th Birthday celebration: