Daytona tallies the price of the party
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
DAYTONA BEACH -- Behind a roadhouse bar in the nearby hamlet of Samsula, husky women will wrestle in coleslaw until their clothes fall off.
The fun begins at noon Wednesday.
Aside from that, the epicenter of debauchery and raucousness during Bike Week will be back in the city, along Daytona Beach's famous Main Street. Gene Fraber, "daytime head of security" at the Boot Hill Saloon, mused last week on the busy days ahead.
The bar will entertain its leather-clad guests with "deranged ice sculptures," the always-popular bikini contest, the requisite loud bands and a menu that includes a "Big Hog Ham Sandwich." Also on tap: the entertainer known as SideShow Bennie.
"He has people out of the audience throw darts at him," said Fraber, 36, a goateed, bouncer-sized man with blond locks down to his shoulders. "He staples dollar bills to his forehead. He drives a nail up his nose -- a 10-penny nail. It's pretty neat."
For atmosphere such as this, an estimated 600,000 people from across the globe will flock to Daytona Beach this week for a 10-day immersion in biker culture that celebrates the city's storied connection with motor sports and free-spirited play. It is one of a half-dozen large events -- including the Daytona 500, Spring Break and Black College Reunion -- that bring an estimated economic impact of $1.3-billion annually to the Daytona Beach area.
For big supporters such as the local chamber of commerce and Mayor Baron H. "Bud" Asher, it's like hosting several Super Bowls each year without having to try very hard or pay for a stadium.
But among beach area residents who for years have complained about the inconvenience of such events, a new feeling of militancy is brewing. The city's first-ever study of the true costs of "special events" has concluded that the city government of Daytona Beach is losing $2-million a year playing host.
For many, the numbers confirmed the sense of abandonment they feel each spring when their city fills with strangers, swelling to eight times its normal population for an event such as Bike Week.
Beginning Feb. 2 with the races that precede the Daytona 500 and ending with the Black College Reunion in mid April, Daytona Beach residents endure 10 solid weeks of other people's parties, all of which seem to get bigger each year.
Over the next several days, beach residents who need police service will be asked to wait for hours unless their situation is dire. Schools will close this Friday to clear local roads for the armadas of Harleys that flock to town for Bike Week's final weekend. An estimated 5,300 residents will simply leave town to escape the bedlam, spending $1.6-million in the process and creating a sort of reverse economic impact.
Normal household activities such as watching television and sleeping will be disrupted by the all-night rumbling of motorcycles and the throttle blasts that signify a biker's "salute" to the world.
The noise was so bad one year that City Commissioner Darlene Yordon slept in the kitchen of her condo with the stove vent fan turned on high.
"Police officers have actually told people that have been victims of crime, "We can't service you until after special events week.' That's sick," said Yordon, who came to office in 1999 promising to tackle the issue.
For years, this oceanfront city of 65,000 people has debated the impact of special events on the locals' lives, but it was always assumed that city government at least broke even for its trouble. The study, with the new idea that long-suffering residents may also be subsidizing the events, has hit a raw nerve.
Some residents are talking about civil disobedience, said Frank Heckman, 58, a retired airline pilot who heads Beachside Neighborhood Watch Inc. With more than 1,700 members, it has been called the largest neighborhood group in the state.
"They're willing to chain together and lie across the bridges and prevent bikes from coming in if the city doesn't do something about it," Heckman said. "I'm having some difficulty convincing these people we're not ready to do that -- not yet. Let's work on it a little bit more. We have a commission now that's working for us. . . . But I've got 70-, 80-year-old people willing to go limp and lie down."
In its own study last year, the Daytona Beach & Halifax Area chamber acknowledged the problems but concluded that, on balance, the city benefits from big events.
"Our position is, if you're going to add up all the costs, you should tally up all the benefits too," chamber official Kevin Kilian said of the city's study. "We think it's a good first step, but it doesn't show the whole picture."
Mayor Asher was out of the country last week and unavailable for comment, but he recently told The Daytona Beach News-Journal: "People have got to understand that business is not a dirty word. Special events are not dirty words. Without business we don't have a driving economy. Without special events, we would be in the shoes of a lot of cities that are crying in their boots right now."
Realizing that special events will never be abolished in Daytona, Heckman, Yordon and others advocate scaling them back and requiring organizers to at least make the city whole. Any solution that would tax the locals to make up the difference seems out of the question for now.
How can a city be losing money when its hotels and restaurants are filled to capacity?
Because there are two economies, one private and one government, City Manager Carey F. Smith explained in his most recent budget message, which offered a bleak assessment of the city's finances.
While millions of dollars flow to merchants and millions in sales taxes go to Tallahassee, the return to City Hall will never be correspondingly high, the new study noted. That's because the state distributes sales taxes to cities based on population. Daytona Beach must share windfalls from its large events with cities across Florida.
The reaction of visitors is typified by Buck Owens, 31, of Orlando, one of hundreds of bikers who arrived last week before the official start of Bike Week. Enjoying the Main Street scene from the seat of his 1998 Harley, he said of Daytona's fiscal woes: "Me personally, I could give a damn what's wrong with the city."
City officials have attempted to keep track of special event costs in the past, but those efforts were chronically incomplete, the new study found.
The news was part of a larger analysis by a Tallahassee consultant, Government Services Group Inc., which concluded the city was facing an array of fiscal problems. If nothing is done, the group said, Daytona Beach will face budget shortfalls of up to $6.5-million in five years.
Among the problems: achingly slow growth in the city's property values. Also, the city's population grew only 3.5 percent between 1990 and 2000, compared with 23.5 percent growth statewide.
The problem of property values is most evident along stretches of State Road A1A, where many pieces of prime Atlantic beachfront are occupied by run-down homes.
Critics say events such as Bike Week, Black College Reunion and Spring Break are to blame for low property values, which lag behind the neighboring towns of Ormond Beach and New Smyrna Beach.
"What business wants to move their family into Daytona Beach with the image that we project?" asked Yordon, a property appraiser, who stood on Main Street and spoke over the roar of motorcycles. A day before the start of Bike Week, the avenue was already alive with the rumble of Harleys, the hoisting of beers and the growing bustle of men and women in leather jackets, bandanas and riding chaps.
As the week wears on, the scene will become more animated.
"The image we're trying to clean up, but then we have coleslaw wrestling, show us your (breasts), show us whatever," Yordon lamented. "I mean it's rampant. On a Friday-Saturday night down here, you wouldn't believe what you see."
Back at the Boot Hill Saloon, security man Fraber does not dwell on such problems. His comment on coleslaw wrestling is that the recent brisk weather should cool the slaw and make the event somewhat less disgusting.
"At least this year," he observed, "it won't be all hot."
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