Florida Keys

This Keys island is changing right before our eyes

Mario Cruz drives a batch of busted lawn mowers he said he would repair to sell down Cross Street on Stock Island.
Mario Cruz drives a batch of busted lawn mowers he said he would repair to sell down Cross Street on Stock Island. Keynoter

On any given day, Stock Island delivers the type of oddball, tender-hearted sights on which the nearby city of Key West built its we’re-all-here-because-we’re-not-all-there reputation.

Mario Cruz the other day pedaled a small convoy of broken push lawn mowers, all attached to a makeshift bicycle trailer. Cruz, a Cuban native who speaks little English, indicated through his friend Berto Canoba that he planned on fixing the mowers to sell.

“He is alone — not married,” explained Berto, who wore a faded “Cuba” baseball cap.

Stock Island, the historically rough-and-tumble, scruffy neighbor a couple miles north of resort-happy Key West, today doubles as a residential suburb —where locals depend on cheaper rents and trailer parks remain common —while holding onto its working-class roots centered on commercial fishing and small manufacturing.

It’s still a place where two men hauling a string of busted lawn mowers doesn’t turn any heads, yet the old laundromat off MacDonald Avenue is now a Croissants de France, a second store for the 30-year French bakery on Duval Street in Key West.

Stock Island, one side dominated by the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and its jail, the only local hospital, the Florida Keys Community College, a golf course, waterfront condos and the city’s homeless shelter, is undergoing extraordinary resort-style development on the side framed by Maloney Avenue and Cross Street.

Developers are sinking hundreds of millions into this side of Stock Island, where early next year a $38 million 100-room hotel, restaurant and commercial center is scheduled to open at the Stock Island Marina, in the 7000 block of Shrimp Road.

Hotel Key West will offer a waterfront view and private terrace with every room, according to its public relations firm.

“A far cry from Stock Island’s roots as a cattle herding ground and shrimp boat rest stop,” wrote Lisa Schwartz in an email last week. “So in addition to bringing a new hotel, this project is also part of a massive gentrification project for the area.”

Some locals say the developers couldn’t get here fast enough.

“The deep pockets are here,” said Ricky Arnold, of the towing company named after his family that has been on Stock Island for 30 years. “You’ve got to grow with the times. Stock Island has gotten nasty. It needs a good face lift, a good cleanup.”

Yet thousands of families depend on Stock Island’s more affordable rents, property prices and low-income housing complexes deed-restricted for workforce housing, and the neighborhood is thick with small businesses.

“It’s just all getting commercialized,” said Scott Davenport, 47, who works making aluminum hurricane shutters at a Stock Island company tucked in an unassuming commercial building. “It’s being build to cater toward tourists and the people that live here, we have a really hard time.”

Davenport, a Michigan native who moved down to the Keys about 11 years ago, lives on Summerland Key, where he has “three bedrooms, a yard and no neighbors,” but originally he lived on 12th Avenue on Stock Island.

“Guess how many businesses are on Stock Island,” said Sean Krikorian, a resident who is part of the I Love Stock Island business collective launching its own festival this weekend. “There are more than 300 businesses.”

I Love Stock Island, which is also led by local restaurateur Bobby Mongelli, and Colleen Quirk, who owns Fishbusterz, where on a recent afternoon manager Jorge Blanco showed off a 56-pound black grouper.

“Any fresher is still in the water,” Blanco, 25, said of the market’s locally caught seafood. He has his own boat and 900 lobster traps.

Commercial fishing and boat yards remain an economic engine on Stock Island, which is part of why I Love Stock Island was formed.

Krikorian and his fiancée, Jill Snodgrass, have lived together on Stock Island for a couple of years and he’s been visiting Key West since 2009. She used to live on a boat at the Shrimp Road marina before it was renovated.

“These hotels may change the whole complexion of Stock Island,” said Krikorian, adding the one-square-mile island is overdue for some reinvigoration. “Things are changing whether people like it or not.”

Monroe County just started completely reconstructing Bernstein Park in an $8 million effort that will add two soccer fields, a basketball court, exercise trail a playground and updated field lights, and the county plans to rebuild sections of main roads.

Developer Pritam Singh has his own Stock Island project, having bought Oceanside Marina in 2013 for $5 million, that includes condos, hotel rooms and commercial shops, while another set of investors wants to develop a site along 5th Avenue.

Meanwhile, there are those like Edwens St. Germain, 24, for whom Stock Island is home. St. Germain recently arrived from his native Haiti to live with his brother here in a small apartment painted a rich blue and white.

St. Germain said he wants to become a chef and is taking classes at FKCC. For now, all he knows of America is Stock Island.

“Just Key West,” he said, when asked if he had traveled much.

Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen