Stop the buses before the Cow Key Bridge

Fifty bucks for six hours of premo parking in Old Town? And the City of Key West provides the parking lot gratis?

Now you may be thinking “Crikey, that’s a lot of money for parking. It’s darn near $10 an hour.” Nah, you’re wrong. That’s nothing, A pittance.

Why? Because that’s $50 for one mass-quantity bus. You know the ones. Filled with day-tripping tourists? Those massive “motor coaches,” complete with WiFi, that ply the two lanes of the Overseas Highway between Miami and Key West?

cropped-KWWM_Letters.pngThey do a daily dump of hundreds of sightseers at the bottom of Duval for six hours of wandering the streets, discovering (and complaining) that we don’t have tourist-fancy beaches, and occasionally spending money on a $5 T-shirt (or three for $10).

These lumbering, over-sized charter buses come down daily from Miami and have become the scourge of Key West’s narrow, one-way and dead-end streets. Their sides and back ends spill across two lanes, they struggle with multiple three-point turns attempting to get around a corner and they park their waddling carcasses anywhere they darn please until a cop runs them off.

This week, the city said it was building a nine-bus parking lot in the 900 block of Caroline St., just down the block from the start of the Duval Crawl. And, lordy, lordy, the city’s going to charge each bus all the way to $50 a day to park there.

Now that’s a nice chunk of change for the city coffers. Nothing wrong with $450 a day of unearned income. Except that it ought to be double that. Heck, let’s triple it. Quadruple it.

These charters charge each passenger between $75 and $100 for the round-trip. Passengers are encouraged to bring along their own snacks (then they don’t have to spend money eating in Key West.) The bus company’s only going to pass along what would amount to a few bucks to the riders. What do we care?

Key West ought to ban charter buses anywhere in Old Town except in this new Caroline Street lot — and then charge outrageous fees for the premium location. No drop-offs or pick-ups except at Caroline Street.

Ban all the other charter buses from Old Town and require them to park off island, in the retail shopping area lots or in the high school lot on weekends (and charge them there, too.) In short, if your charter bus crosses the Cow Key Bridge, there’s gonna be a fee commensurate with the size of the bus. Big.

If the charter owners balk and say they’re not coming to Key West anymore, well, then, most excellent. These are not revenue producing visitors. Farewell and don’t let the door hit you broadside on the way out of town.

P.S. The same — except with a tenfold increase in the daily fee to $500 for the day — applies to the approximately 75 chartered party buses that disgorge thousands of Fantasy Fest day trippers in October.

These benighted souls come equipped with coolers, camp chairs and survival packs of adult beverages and food, and lay claim to blocks and blocks of sidewalk. Even the city acknowledges they don’t spend money; they just clutter — and litter — the streets.

Solution’s simple: Put a gigonzo parking fee hurt on the charter buses. It might curtail the spend-no-money riffraff. And, if it doesn’t?

At $500 a day per bus times 75 Fantasy Fest buses, that’s $37,500. Not a bad ROI for parking.

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media, a small business digital media solutions company. Clearly, she’s not rationale about those buses.


No realistic alternative | Key West should purchase Peary Court

Here’s some wishful thinking.
Wanted to Rent: One bedroom, one bath house or apartment. Long-term lease. Willing to pay security, first and last. Employed. Good references. Can afford up to $775 monthly. In Key West. Don’t have car. Need to be close to work.

Did that $775 a month make you snort your morning cereal out your nose? Thought so.

There hasn’t been rent that low in Key West since, well, probably the 1970s. This little island is one darned expensive place to live. In a place where folks can’t blink an eye at $2,500 a month for a teensy, not-so-great bungalow, condo or apartment, the idea of $750 rent is a pipe dream.

Key West recognizes it’s face-to-face with a housing crisis. There simply isn’t enough affordable or workforce housing on or near the island for the workers needed to sustain the local tourism economy.

cropped-KWWM_Letters.pngPassage of the March 15 referendum asking Key West voters to approve the $55 million purchase of Peary Court and preserve its 160 homes as workforce housing has some potential – but the swirling controversy makes it difficult to sift through to the facts.

Key West’s long-term rental market is disappearing as single-family homes become the darlings of second-home owners who put them into the lucrative seasonal vacation rental pool. Many of these homes are rented for three or four months of the season, then sit empty or barely used the rest of the year.

I can’t blame new owners for wanting a piece of island paradise that might pay for itself. But every home or condo that’s not a permanent residence threatens the stability of Key West’s workforce.

Pricing the workforce – seasonal and long-term – out of Key West leaves us with no one to be the teachers, cops, service providers, retail workers, gardeners, chefs and refrigerator repair folks.

Florida defines affordable housing as “rent or mortgage payments, plus taxes and insurance, that don’t not exceed 30 percent of median gross income.” Hence the $775 figure. That’s what the state says an individual making Key West’s median income of about $31,000 can afford in rent. And, that’s a long cry from what’s on today’s market.

Workforce housing gets a bit more complicated and more expensive.  Florida statutes say workforce housing ”means housing affordable to natural persons or families whose total annual household income does not exceed 140 percent of the area median income. …”

In Key West that means monthly rent in the neighborhood of $1,890 to $2,520, depending on whether the family, whose adjusted median household income is $75,600, wants to spend 30 or 40 percent each month on rent.

And those calculations bring us to Peary Court, a 29-acre parcel of prime real estate, right next to Old Town and a developer’s dream – if a developer could get designs through the city, the Historic Architectural Review Commission and Key West’s always-vocal residents.

Peary Court, in principle if not legal fact, is workforce housing. Rents are in the $2,400 range and people who work in Key West or serve in the military occupy the homes.

Peary Court has been the site of military housing of some sort since the 1800s. The U.S. Navy built today’s Peary Court in the early 1990s when the military said it needed housing. Twenty years later, in 2013, the Navy sold the 160-home Peary Court to White Street Developers, which planned to tear it down and replace the Navy-built homes with luxury development. Key West opposition killed those plans.

White Street Partners said “enough” and offered Peary Court to the city for $55 million, a whopping $20 million more than what they paid two years earlier.

On March 15, City of Key West voters will decide via referendum whether the city should purchase Peary Court and designate those homes forever as workforce housing. In true Key West fashion, the fors-and-agins are slugging it out in print and in social media, with the most common opposition argument being “we don’t trust the government.”

I’m not so sure I trust them either, and I have my doubts. But if the city doesn’t own it, Peary Court is going to another private developer. Eventually the high-end development will get built. When it does, its current residents will be displaced and there are no comparable relocation possibilities.

We can toss political hand grenades and re-open the door to housing stock Key West’s workforce cannot afford. Or we can preserve 160 homes for the people who do the work for all those tourists and second-home owners.

We need to fix this problem before there is no one left to pour the drinks, cook the seafood, teach the kids and police the streets. The Peary Court referendum has its flaws, but it’s better than doing nothing.

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media. She and her husband own a home just down the street from Peary Court.

Got some spare cash? Flagler’s Seven Mile Bridge is yours for $62 million

Heard the one about the guy who’s got a bridge for sale in Brooklyn? Don’t waste your cash. We’ve got a better deal down here in Key West parts.

A 100 years ago, railroad tycoon Henry Flagler funded to the tune of what would be $640 million today the building of a steel and concrete umbilical cord between the south Florida mainland and the island of Key West. Flagler’s stunning engineering marvel made it easy for tourists to trade the real world for a magical town of pirates, big bucks, cigar makers and fishermen. (Pretty much the same strategy as today’s cruise ships, but that’s a story for another day.)

He finished it in 1912 complete with a massive hotel complex. The Casa Marina still dominates the Atlantic side landscape. Today, pieces of Flagler’s railroad run parallel to the 113-mile Overseas Highway, which meanders at 45 MPH through the Florida Keys until it ends at Mile Marker Zero at the corner of Whitehead and Fleming in Key West. Destroyed by a hurricane in 1935, the railroad remnants are used by pelicans, fishermen, the occasional runner and divers. The “oh-my-goodness” effect of the architecture makes for good sightseeing on a seemingly endless drive.

The old Seven Mile Bridge, which, yes, does extend seven miles over open water, is up for sale. The state wants to dump it cheap and Monroe County has the first option, so to speak. As best I can tell, the county’s thinking goes like this: Fix up the bridge and let folks explore it.

The catch? The bridge is falling apart. The Florida Department of Transportation’s engineering firm rates it  “structurally deficient.” It’ll take at least $62 million over the next 30 years to whip that sucker into shape — and that’s just a guess. No one knows how bad the underwater parts are. At best, they’re rated “poor.”

What the heck are you going to do with it anyway? Sell corporate naming rights? Or month-to-month digital, bright light advertising for local businesses? Sponsor the annual Old Seven Mile Bridge Run? We’ve got one of those already on the new Seven Mile Bridge.

I’m all for saving old things. Really, I am. But, this project rates right up there with a big, ol’ “what are they thinking”? (voice inflection rising on that last word.)

Taking on, fixing up and continuously maintaining the old Seven Mile Bridge takes historic preservation into the nuts bowl. I’m pretty sure Monroe County taxpayers can find better uses for a spare $62 million. And, tourists can get their awes on by looking from afar. Something like admiring the Roman Colosseum. With water and pelicans.

And, a much slimmer budget. Restoration plans for the Colosseum are pegged at $32 million and annual operating expenses are about $875,000.

Key West confusion: It’s a study, not a decision, on channel widening

It’s a study. Not a decision. Fact-finding for future choices.

Come October, Key West voters will decide if they want the city to ask the Army Corps of Engineers to do a feasibility study on the potential widening of the channel that connects Key West to the Atlantic Ocean — and its cruise ships.

Problem is those who know there’s a referendum on the ballot are confused. Confused because for the past couple years, those opposed to any changes in the channel and the Marine Sanctuary in which it lies have positioned the ballot question as “do you want to widen the channel.” Not, do you want to gather enough facts and figures to decide whether widening the channel is a good idea.

Geesh, widening the channel might be a very bad idea. Or a good one. Or a “who knows” one. That’s the problem. We don’t know. And, for the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone could be against finding out.

I’ve been following this referendum debate for almost three years, longer than I’ve actually lived here. The two sides seem to be talking past each other. Opponents framed the discussion as an up-or-down on channel widening. Proponents left their message — let’s get the facts first before deciding — to languish without a caretaker, or worse, lashed out at opponents as being reef huggers with no sense of cash registers.

Last October I sat in a packed Old City Hall and listened for hours to a two-sided presentation to the city commissioners. One side said “ask the Army Corps of Engineers for a study.” The other side said “don’t widen the channel.”

See what I mean about talking past each other? No wonder voters are confused.

I figured the commissioners would agree unanimously to go for the study so they’d be equipped to make future decisions. I mean, who doesn’t want information and facts before making a decision? It’s a study, not a decision, on the economic, environmental and quality of life effects of widening the channel.

Instead, they passed the decision to voters via the coming October referendum. OK, so that’s not a bad idea. Let the voters tell the city to ask for the study.

Since October, referendum opponents have geared up their message: Channel widening bad. Referendum supporters dithered. So — and full disclosure coming — I made a proposal to the political action committee supporting the referendum: Let my company, KeyWestWatch Media, do an information advocacy campaign for you. I modeled it off the newspaper editorial board leadership campaigns from my past life.

We’ll call it “A study. Not a decision. Fact-finding for future choices.” I made the official proposal April 17. Don’t know yet if the PAC bought the idea. Either way, I’ll continue to write about the referendum because those future Key West decisions about who we are and what we should become ought to be based in facts.




I am not sharing my Key West bathroom with an iguana

Fair warning: Not for the iguana lovers.

If you get all muggly-snuggly over your resident iguanas, go read something else. Right now. Because …

Smashed. Dead. I am not sharing my Key West bathroom with an iguana.

Challenging enough to share it with four cats, a husband and the brown anoles with no shame about lizarding across my kitchen counters. The line is drawn this side of three-feet-minus-the-tail iguanas.

Iguanas are as ubiquitous in Key West as free-range chickens and six-toed cats. They begin as “oh, how cute; let’s take him home for the kids to play with” and end with “dear heavens, what have we done; let’s let him go outside.”

The problem with outside is iguanas love outside. They love the flowers, bushes, trees and each other. They make babies, leave lots of, well, former flowers, bushes and trees, and their only predators are cars, humans and certain chichi restaurants. (Note: Just because a restaurant is named Iguana doesn’t mean it serves iguana. I checked.) Iguanas bite, scratch and take baths in your pool. They wander the Overseas Highway and race around the backyard fence.

Left alone, they’re not dangerous. Or not dangerous as in rabid fox. Or fire-breathing dragon. But they’re big, nasty, dirty, environment-wrecking pests on a tiny city island. A bite or scrape by their spines can introduce one to a salmonella weekend.

Key West’s invasive, non-native iguanas are a cross-pollination between stowaways from South American fruit ships and stupid pet owners. They’re not a protected species, at least not around here.

Puerto Rico has more iguanas than people and wants to export them for meat. Costa Rica doesn’t have enough and wants more. There are save-the-iguana folks and just as many who want them gone. Lots of folks say they trap and relocate them. I suspect relocate mostly means the neighbor’s yard three blocks away or the great lizard round up.

Ours begins as do all tall tales. Once upon a time (that would be last Wednesday), said iguana suns himself on the pool deck. Said husband (see above) comes up behind it and sorta says “boo.”

That scares the scales off the iguana and he crashes through the closed screen door, into the house and into the bathroom — thankfully, it has a door. Four cats (also see above) cower under the daybed.

Iguanas are like cats; they don’t do well on leashes or with directions. We tried “shoo, shoo,” and the iguana ran around the tiled shower. No time to call the local “get rid of pests humanely” people. No way to get him gone except the last resort and not the relocation one. Trap. Smash. Trash can. Sad.

So, asked several friends, what would you have done if husband hadn’t been there? Besides crying in the corner and cowering with the cats, I ask. Well, the iguana wouldn’t have made it to the bathroom because I wouldn’t have said “boo” and started the whole scared scales thing. Boys apparently will be boys even when they’re five decades past.

I’m cool with an iguana policy of live and let live. Outside.

Sigh. Let friends of iguanas write hate mail. I told you not to read this.




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