KEY WEST -- As hundreds of passengers from Carnivals cruise ship Victory made their way back to Pier B for the 2 p.m. sharp departure, some retailers tried last-minute sales pitches, including: We got liquor here and we know how to help you sneak it on the boat.
To many business owners and workers in the tourist district of this island city, the visitors who arrive on the floating hotels about 732,000 over the past year are vital economic boosts to their bottom lines.
In just a few hours in port, the day tourists who are usually gone by happy hour spend an average of $84 on scooter and watercraft rentals, shopping, museums, water attractions, dining and of course, bar-hopping on Duval Street. The city of Key West, the U.S. Navy and the private owners of Pier B also get a piece of the pie for the three piers used by the cruise lines, which pay $10.63 per passenger in impact fees.
But with cruise ships getting bigger as they modernize, the leaders of the Key West Chamber of Commerce and the Key West Seaport Alliance say the only way to keep them coming in large numbers is to widen a 1.1-mile portion of the main harbor channel, known as Cut B, from 300 feet to 450 feet.
It would require dredging 20 feet deep, destroying about 17 acres of sea bottom, which includes endangered corals, that is in the protected Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
The issue is so controversial, and passions run so high on both sides, that just deciding whether to request a feasibility study from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has resulted in months of heated public debates, many letters to the editors, nearly $200,000 in cash and in-kind contributions to political action committees, and plenty of behind-the-scenes, small-town politicking.
It all has led up to an Oct. 1 local election in which just a few thousand referendum voters will determine the studys fate.
I dont sleep well yet; Im still nervous about it, said Jolly Benson, a playwright who has been leading the crusade against the study as leader of the Key West Committee for Responsible Tourism.
But, he added, People say to me on the street that they are glad we are standing up to certain businesses that think they can do whatever they want. There have been big boys in this town for a long, long time. The people who I am talking to have had enough and are not willing to risk the future of the island, the place where they grew up and raise their kids, and sacrifice the offshore environment just so these people can make more money potentially in 20 more years.
Two years ago, the Key West City Commission voted 6-1 against putting the issue on the ballot as a referendum, mainly because there was no big push for it from the business community.
Not this time. The Key West Chamber of Commerce PAC not only is robustly campaigning for it, which includes a website www.supportthestudy.com, but also has pledged to raise private contributions to cover the citys portion of the study. The referendum states: at no cost to the city.
It took awhile for the business community to understand the impacts [of losing about 300,000 annual cruise ship passengers since 2003], said attorney Jennifer Hulse, a chamber PAC board member. But they got the message when they were feeling it on their bottom line.