Rust said the Keys are similar to the state’s Panhandle, where places like Pensacola also benefit from both tourism and military bases.
And Monroe County, like Escambia County, home to Pensacola, has benefited the past two years from large BP payouts. The Keys, with only 73,000 people, already has received a whopping $184 million. More payouts are expected for businesses and individuals in the island chain during the upcoming settlement process.
Jackie Harder, the former executive director of the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce, said the county’s economic strength also is based on its large percentage of small businesses, “and I’m talking very small businesses.”
Key Largo, with a population of less than 13,000, has about 1,200 business licenses. “To me, we almost have micro businesses — even a 10-employee company is big in the Keys,” said Harder, who recently left the chamber to start Key Dynamics, which provides coaching and marketing consultation to small businesses.
“Small companies are closer to the ground and have the greatest flexibility to adapt,” she said. “They can make changes much faster than a Ford Motor Co.”
Pilates in Paradise added classes on standup paddleboards, Key Largo Chocolates now sells ice cream and Pearl’s Rainbow, a guesthouse in Key West, went from all-lesbian to all-inclusive and now is called Pearl’s Key West.
Rick Beasley, executive director of the South Florida Workforce, said his region considers a firm with 250 employees or more to be large. “I don’t know too many of them in Monroe County,” he said. “Most are mom and pops that help generate the economy.”
A 2010 Florida Enterprise report listed only six private sector employers in the Keys with more than 250 employees: Kmart, two hospital companies, Historic Tours of America, Hawks Cay Resort and Publix.
Beasley said the strategy of getting people back to work in Monroe County is a bit different from what applies to the rest of South Florida because of all the small businesses. One strategy it uses is subsidizing the wages of on-the-job trainees.
Greg Baumann, director of the Small Business Development Center in Key West, said he’s been busier than ever this year: “The entrepreneurial spirit is alive in the Keys.”
Several people have come for the free help to start water-related businesses: personal watercraft rentals, charter boat fishing and water adventures. “There aren’t any large businesses that have a monopoly, so it’s easier for the small business owners here,” he said.
Another reason unemployment for the Keys never came close to approaching double digits during the recession is its lack of manufacturing, an industry whose massive job losses have hurt many areas.
And although Monroe County was hit hard by the housing market collapse and related loss of construction jobs, “a lot of our contractors were coming out of Miami-Dade County. So they actually are Dade County’s unemployed folks,” Baumann said.
Now, the Keys housing market is rebounding faster than in most of the state. The average sales price for a single family home in Monroe County, which plummeted from a peak of $989,745 in 2006 to $532,000 in 2010, has begun to rise again. Last year, the average sales price was $572,000 and the upward trend appears to be continuing for this year.
The penny state sales tax collected in Monroe County for infrastructure, an indication of spending, also went up from 2010 to 2011 and is expected to rise this year.
But the Keys forecast is not all rosy for job seekers. In 2011, Monroe County’s annual average wage was $31,762, slightly down from $32,839 a year ago and well below the statewide average of $42,311. It’s primarily due to the large number of low-paying service and retail jobs.
In 2010, even when the Keys tourism industry was struggling, there were 3.8 million visitors, with 2.5 million of them spending at least one night. Wheeler of the tourist development council said it has helped greatly that the island chain has been able to stay out of the dreaded cone of brewing hurricanes the past few years.
So while residents of the Keys grumble when tourists clog up The Road to Recovery — the Overseas Highway — they also are thankful they are here.
“Since I moved to the Keys in 1975, this is my fourth major economic downturn,” Harder said. “Because of tourism, the Keys seem to enter the downturns later and come out of it sooner. People always need to take a break, even in bad times.”