As hundreds of passengers from Carnival’s 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 study’s fate.
“I don’t sleep well yet; I’m 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 city’s 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.”
The complex study could cost as much as $5.5 million, said Eric Bush, chief of planning and policy at the Army Corps’ Jacksonville District. The city would be responsible for half the cost, although Hulse said cruise ship lines and the state have indicated in talks that they likely would kick in some funding for the study.
“The state has a huge interest in this,” Hulse said. “The state receives about $4 to $5 million in sales tax just from cruise ships in Key West. So they have an interest in keeping ships here and not going to foreign ports.”
And while it’s a local issue, it has attracted international attention. A group from Venice, Italy, called “Comitato No Grandi Navi,” which roughly translates to Committee for No Big Ships, teamed up with Benson’s committee in a joint resolution. It states the two groups will coordinate their efforts to educate the public on the dire need to limit the size of vessels and number of passengers able to disembark on any single day in historic maritime ports. It also is working to advance good stewardship of resources and sustainability.
But John Dolan-Heitlinger, who heads the Key West Seaport Alliance of retail merchants, ice cream shops, jewelry stores and bar pilots, said people should not fear that the marine environment will be ruined or even badly scarred over the long haul because any damage done short term by the dredging would be repaired with coral and other marine habitat restoration.
“Certainly with the mitigation that has got to be done it means the environment is going to have to be in better shape after the project than before, and if it’s not, it’s not going to be approved,” Dolan-Heitlinger said.
Approval is a big question mark even if the referendum passes. A yes vote simply means the city will request the study. It’s up to the Corps whether it will conduct it, and it can’t unless Congress approves appropriations for it.
And while the Corps concluded in its $100,000 reconnaissance study in 2010 that a “significant federal interest in national water policy and economic development exists for navigation improvements to the Key West Harbor,” Bush said the Corps “will not waste federal dollars” conducting the feasibility study if it appears that such a project would remain prohibited in the sanctuary.
As it stands now, the only dredging allowed in the sanctuary is for maintenance of existing channels that were written into the regulations. In 2004 and 2005, the U.S. Navy dredged the harbor’s natural channel to clear out silt that had filled in over time. It was the 11th such improvement project over the last century.
There are known corals in the proposed dredging area that are protected under the Endangered Species Act. But there are special cases in which the sanctuary does issue permits to disturb the sea floor, including research, education — and, if the disturbance furthers the main mission of the sanctuary: resource protection.
“One example is in Islamorada, where we allowed directional drilling into the sea floor for the wastewater treatment project,” said Sean Morton, superintendent of the sanctuary. “It improves the water quality situation so it furthered the goal of resource protection.”
But there are now no permit categories on the books that allow dredging or other sea bottom disturbance strictly for economic reasons, Morton said.
To apply for a change of regulations or permit would require a full environmental impact statement (a major study) under the National Environmental Policy Act, Morton said.
Many backcountry fishing guides, including Capt. Will Benson, say they already know from their experience with the Navy’s project that dredging there disturbs the nearshore fishing and a key spawning area for tarpon.
“When the Navy dredged, they removed soft corals, sponges and sea fans, basically the living bottom that made it comfortable for fish to be there,” he said. “Since then there has been a decline in fish. It really would be the kiss of death to make the channel bigger.”
Cruise ships also kick up silt that moves in the water column and settles on habitat, says Will Benson, who created a 12-minute film in January called Silver Lining that has a scene showing “a giant, long plume of silt that happens every time cruise ships come in and out.” The video can be seen on the website worldangling.com.
And if down the road the dredging is approved and it engenders a multi-year construction project estimated at $36 million in the 2010 reconnaissance study (including $24 million for mitigation), there is no guarantee from the cruise ship lines that when the channel is done in 15 to 20 years that they will bring more ships to Key West, or even that they will continue at the same levels as they are now: about 330 ships per year.
In March, Carnival Cruise Lines indefinitely rerouted two of its ships, the Fascination and Ecstasy, from regular port calls in Key West to stops at a private island in the Bahamas owned by competitor Royal Caribbean Ltd.
“People think if we build it they will come, but people should wake up and finally realize the best thing we have going is the natural environment,” Will Benson said. “We need to protect and support that.”
Key West gets high marks from the passengers, most who never venture out on the water. “We had a great time,” said Chiho Chan of Philadelphia. He and his friend Alex Fong rented scooters to tour the island, visited the Hemingway House, window shopped and ate at Wendy’s.
Danny Marty of Miami and his friends barhopped with a stop at Sloppy Joe’s. He also splurged on a gold-colored pair of $200 designer sunglasses.
But many say the approximately $80 plus million that cruise ship passengers spend in Key West is not worth it, especially if they detract from the experience of the other tourists and snowbirds who pump $900 million annually into the local coffers.
And now that Key West is doing so well attracting tourists year round, with the state’s highest occupancy rates (more than 80 percent) and highest average room rate (more than $200), the cruise ship passengers who roam Old Town are not nearly as critical in the slow times as they once were.
On a muggy hot Friday early afternoon in September, once a deadly slow time in Key West, Duval Street was still packed with people even after the horn had sounded and Victory was slowly motoring down the channel to its next destination.
But in Key West, cruise ships have been controversial since 1969, when the first one, called Sunward, arrived.
“For the most part our town is very tolerant,” Jolly Benson said. “But I’ve never seen so much response on a single issue. We’ve turned ourselves from a quirky fun town into a cruise port. The world is curious to see if Key West will sell out so a few people can chase some extra dollars.”