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Planning Troubles Cast Shadow Over St. Augustine's 450th Celebration

This September, St. Augustine will commemorate 450 years as the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States. Anniversary planning has been an arduous process for St. Augustine City officials — and with only six months to go, there is still much to be done.

Signs are already up in historical St. Augustine announcing the 450th commemoration. Crowds pass under them in the trolley plaza next to a big new parking garage. In anticipation of September, the city is dusting off its dancing shoes.

“I think the way most people here think about it is, it’s going to be a good party,” Mayor Nancy Shaver said.

On September 8, the Nation’s Oldest City turns 450, and Shaver says the anniversary bash has been several years in the making—but not without some bumps along the way.

Shaver said, “The planning started right before the recession hit. So those kinds of things make it a little tougher to get where you want it to go.”

Starting in 2012, programming for the 450th has included cultural exhibits, lecture series, renovations and reenactments. The celebration will culminate on Labor Day weekend with musical performances and street parties.

Indecisive Preparations

But major event details have yet to be finalized. Something that has stymied preparations over the years, says City Commissioner Todd Neville, is reconciling an evolving vision for the 450th. Though planning started around 2006.

“It’s gone through several iterations since then,” Todd said. “Everything from: the City should be running it, to it should be in the private sector, to a non-profit should be set up just for the 450th, to let’s bring it back into the City.”

Neville says this changing-of-hands has led to controversy. A proposed audit on related contracts is dividing the Commission. Mayor Shaver requested the audit at the City Commission meeting on March 9, citing concern over bidding processes and compliance issues. The request prompted a tense exchange among commissioners.

City Manager John Regan will deliver his recommendations at the next Commission meeting Monday night.

A Way Forward

Mayor Shaver hosts a weekly “Walks with the Mayor” event, an informal opportunity for residents to discuss their concerns for the city. Among those walking tonight is Leonard Pellicer, a former university professor and Minorcan descendent. Pellicer says his family has lived in St. Augustine for hundreds of years.

“The 450th is a time when we take stock of where we are and where we’re going and we appreciate our history and our heritage,” Pellicer said.

“We want to make sure that businesses and institutions don’t take over the entire city. The controversy really is us trying to preserve and them trying to make a buck or grow their enterprise,” he said.

Becky Greenberg agrees. She is President of the Flagler Model Land Company Neighborhood Association.

Greenberg says she would’ve liked to see more of the 450th’s budget invested in restoring historic sites that are actively used by the communities living there, “and really made a contribution to the history that is real, that exists, hasn’t been demolished and recreated as a fake building.”

As the celebration draws nearer, city officials still have some big decisions to make — and diverse interests to balance.

Anna Hamilton is a freelance radio producer and oral historian in St. Augustine, Florida. Her first radio story, produced at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, covered a competitive burrito eating contest. Since then, her award-winning documentary work has focused on issues of civil rights, the environment and foodways. Hamilton produces Watershed, a podcast exploring Floridian culture and our changing environments.