A decade after back-to-back hurricanes left the Flamingo Lodge in ruins, the National Park Service finally hopes to rebuild the beloved but spartan way station for anglers, birders and campers braving the buggy isolation of Everglades National Park.
But it won’t be anything like the brooding, concrete-block accommodations that offered air-conditioning, a hot shower and little else.
In its place, the National Park Service wants to lure a concessionaire with a bold vision for elevated cottages boasting sweeping views of Florida Bay and complemented by eco-tents, a 4,000-square-foot restaurant, concierge services and maybe even a food truck to deliver hot meals to campers.
“We want to find that sweet spot so we don’t take away from how unique the place is,” said Superintendent Pedro Ramos, on the job for just five months.
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Built in 1959 to draw a growing number of car-driving tourists — as part of the park service’s “Mission 66” program to expand offerings — the old lodge was built for simpler times. Just two stories and steps from the bay, the rooms lacked frills but provided the only lodging available in the park. While bugs would chase away most visitors during the hot summer, in winter the lodge filled up.
“Whole families would go down there and stay there for three or four days, hire a guide and all stay at the lodge,” said Jacqueline Crucet, a program analyst for the National Parks Conservation Association. “They’d go to the restaurant and bring the fish they caught.”
But after Hurricane Katrina and Wilma flooded the building with several feet of water, leaving behind a six-inch layer of bay muck, park officials decided repairing the building would be too expensive and too risky in the face of hurricanes and rising sea levels. With the lodge closed, visitors disappeared.
“A lot of times people would come to camp in the summer not really understanding what they were getting into,” said ranger Christi Carmichael. Faced with mosquitoes that maneuver with military efficiency, many would flee.
“People have abandoned their gear and literally just left,” she said.
With South Florida’s hotel occupancy rate close to 80 percent, among the highest in the world, Ramos believes the lodge “should be a pretty attractive proposition” to potential vendors.
But since the lodge’s demolition in 2009, park officials have wrestled with what to build in its place — and attract someone willing to do it at a spot about 40 miles from Florida City. A smaller, storm-resistant hotel failed to get funding from the Obama administration. University of Miami students constructed an eco-tent on a raised wooden platform as a pilot program, but only one was built. Another proposal for tents and cottages failed to draw a single vendor because the contract was too short — just 10 years. Efforts were delayed again when managers, working on a new general management plan expected to be released this summer, needed to include climate change concerns.
“We didn’t want to take climate change lightly,” Ramos said. “Just like everybody else, we’re trying to understand it and calibrate ... what sea level rise you’re looking at in the next 50 years.”
Including only cottages and eco-tents was a deliberate decision to make lodgings as mobile as possible, said William Gordon, the park’s concession management specialist. The cottages must also be built to Monroe County standards, which means elevations of at least 17 feet, and be modular so they can be moved, he said.
“We’ll be very well-prepared for what Mother Nature can bring,” he said.
But only having cottages and tents, and not having the lodge, has drawn criticism. Crucet believes there’s plenty of demand — fishing guides for one would be happy not to make the 76-mile round-trip drive from the park entrance — and would make for a better experience for visitors.
“It seems like a very big investment for a private entity to come in with a limited amount of room to recoup their investment,” she said.
At a site visit in late June, which included a cherry picker to showcase potential bay views, just four vendors showed up.
The contract, which has been extended to 20 years, calls for vendors to spend at least $5 million on the facilities. Initially, the park would like 24 cottages constructed on the site of the old lodge, along with 20 eco-tents. But Gordon said the park will allow up to 40 cottages and 40 tents. An existing convenience store and marina will also be part of the contract. The park service also plans to update the old pink visitor center at the site, making it the largest in the park.
Rather than size, Ramos said it was important to cater to a variety of visitors, whether hardcore anglers satisfied with sparse conditions or park newcomers looking for a sunset drink under a tiki roof. In addition to the lodgings and a restaurant, the contract allows vendors to provide guided fishing, canoeing and sailing trips, shuttles to canoe launch sites, special events, camping set-ups and fish-cleaning and freezing services.
“If we really mean that we want to be relevant and bring a diversity of people out to national parks, then we need to offer a diversity of experience and not be so rigid,” he said. “People should have a choice, and we should be mindful of the wishes and wants of all people because these places don’t belong to some people. They belong to all people.”
Ramos also thinks the request for plans, due Sept. 2, should draw plenty of interest.
“You know what they say in business. Location, location, location. I may be a little biased, but it doesn’t get better than this.”