The Southernmost City’s main tourist drag of Duval Street was downright peaceful on a recent morning. Then suddenly, the shops, restaurants, bars, historic attractions and water adventures were buzzing with activity.
Bombarding the tiny island around 10:30 a.m. were the Terrazzino clan from Buffalo and Boston, empty nesters from Michigan, teenagers from Argentina and a newly engaged Atlanta couple in search of diamonds — all passengers on Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas. By happy hour, the 2,000-plus cruisers were gone.
Cruise ships have been controversial in Key West since the first one, called Sunward, arrived in 1969. Supporters say they are a vital economic engine. Opponents say they harm the environment and degrade quality of life of residents, overnight guests and snowbirds.
Now, the City Commission has a big decision to make about the floating hotels’ future in Key West. Should the city pursue widening the main 34-foot deep shipping channel into Key West Harbor — which runs through the federally protected Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary — to accommodate the cruise industry’s transition to bigger ships?
“Anytime you mess with the reef and ocean, you’ve got problems,” Key West Director of Port Operations Jim Fitton said. “But you have to weigh that against the economic viability of Key West. Somebody way above me will decide if it’s more important to take a little, itty bitty piece of land to keep the city alive.”
A recent $100,000 reconnaissance study completed by the Army Corps of Engineers concluded that a “significant federal interest in national water policy and economic development exists for navigation improvements to the Key West Harbor.” The study put the widening price tag at about $36 million.
The improvements call for widening Cut B, a 1.13-mile stretch of the five-mile shipping channel to 450 feet, from its current 300. Under ideal weather conditions, the longer ships of more than 1,000 feet could travel the channel as is. But because of strong winds and currents, captains often must angle their ships along that portion of the channel, requiring a wider opening.
Mike Ronan, Royal Caribbean’s vice president of government affairs in the Caribbean, said in an email to Fitton: “With the opening [in 2014] of the newer, larger locks in the Panama Canal, our ship designs for the foreseeable future will be of a size that will not be able to call Key West if the channel is not modified.”
The recon study’s initial assessment only opens the door for the feds to conduct a comprehensive, $5.5 million feasibility study. It won’t be done unless the city agrees to pursue it, can put together half the funding from nonfederal sources and obtains a congressional directive.
Even if the study gets off the ground, there are many other hurdles. Chief among them is getting permission to dredge from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the sanctuary. Billy Causey, regional administrator of the sanctuary, said the current regulations do not allow any widening. And with the proposed dredging area home to corals on the endangered list, it will be even harder to make exceptions for the project, Causey said.
Fitton says exceptions can be made to benefit public interest, just as changes were allowed to cut down protected mangroves to widen the 18-mile stretch into the Keys.
The shipping channel began as a natural one, here long before Navy Lt. Matthew C. Perry of the US Schooner Shark arrived in 1822 and declared the island a great port for a Navy base, Key West historian Tom Hambright said.
Over the last century, the channel has undergone 11 improvement projects, including a Navy-funded dredging project in 2003-2004 to remove built-up silt. “I think we added like 28 conditions,” Causey said.
The Navy also paid for the recon study, drawing from its 40 percent share of the disembarkation fees when cruise ships dock at the Navy-owned Mole Pier.
“War ships are safer with a wider channel,” said Trice Denny, spokeswoman for Naval Air Station Key West, who added that disembarkation fees also are going toward a $3 million repair project to the Mole Pier.
Last week, Key West citizens packed City Hall for a special workshop. About 50 people, through letters and in person, addressed the commission. They were evenly split.
The chamber of commerce, tourist attractions association, small business owners and a property appraiser said it would be economically devastating to lose a large chunk of the 800,000 annual cruise ship passengers. The cruise ships now make about 350 ports of call in Key West each year, providing the city’s coffers with $2.5 million from $10-per-person disembarkation fees. They generate about $1.3 million annually in tax revenues.
The owner of confectioner Sweets of Paradise said the cruise ship passengers keep her small business going, buying about $2,000 worth of cookies and ice cream on days they are in port.
But some members of the Chamber of Commerce and tourist attraction association oppose the widening. Hotel owners say the hordes of cruise ship passengers make the downtown experience less enjoyable for their guests who spend far more money. Artist John Martini wrote a letter to the city calling the cruisers the “low-hanging fruit” of the Keys’ tourist industry. The cruise ship passengers spend about $68 million annually, compared to about $900 million for all tourists.
Charter fishing captains and eco tour operators are concerned the dredging will ruin the natural resources, the main reason many people come to Key West.
“I feel I’m representing the tarpon,” boat captain Doug Kilpatrick said. “I’m not so much against cruise ships, but I am against dredging. You can’t be tearing up the corals and sea fans.”
Other residents say the “big elephant” in the room is Cuba, just 90 miles away. The Communist Island may open up in the future and lure cruise business away from Key West.
Then there are the residents who wish all the cruise ships would disappear, citing that from 1969 to 1984 there were only 266 total ports of call and the city survived just fine.
“The snowbirds, the million-dollar property owners and the people who stay in the hotels, we’re losing them because of this amusement park-like atmosphere,” resident Todd Glenn said. “It’s Redneck Disney World meets Myrtle Beach.”
The Majesty of the Seas passengers had no idea about the controversy when they arrived last Thursday in Key West for a six-hour visit.
Debbie and David Sherrod of Lansing, Mich., sipped on Caribbean Breezes at Rick’s, a Duval Street bar owned by Commissioner Mark Rossi, a longtime supporter of the cruise industry.
The 11 members of the Terrazzino clan, aged 9 to 84, were having a great time seeing the town by electric car. Sam Terrazzino sported new $300 shades, while 9-year-old Jasper showed off his New England Patriots henna tattoo.
Su Kim and Brian Pak of Atlanta emerged from Diamonds International after buying diamond stud earrings and a wedding band. “I’ve dropped about $1,200 already today,” said Pak, who proposed to Kim on the ship.
They all said they want to return to Key West, an argument often presented for those who favor the widening.
After parasailing, Nikki Sundboom, a social worker from Wisconsin, said she was plannig to go to the “butterfly thing, Hemingway House, $5 market, leather sandal shop and find a beach.”
As good a time as she was having, Sundboom said she understood the opposition to widening the channel: “The tourists don’t matter more than the people and ecology that are here all the time.”
Read more: http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/07/15/v-print/2322641/key-west-divided-over-whether.html#ixzz1SkvRKLHc