Key West didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for bikers taking part in a long-standing poker run over the weekend.
Instead of blocks filled with tricked-out motorcycles and classic Harley-Davidsons, visitors were greeted with barricades.
City employees rolled out barricades along Duval Street to block bikers and anyone else from parking on Key West’s most famous street during one of the historically slowest months in the tourist season.
For the first time in its 45 years, Phil Peterson’s Poker Run didn’t finish in Key West, but at Boondocks restaurant located at mile marker 27.5. The first stop was Gilbert’s Resort in Key Largo.
Workers and business owners on Duval said turning the street into a no-parking zone — bikers were directed toward one of the city lots where they could park for $20 each — was a poor decision when it comes to entertaining guests and making money off a weekend event.
“You have taken money out of all of our pockets during September, the slowest month and the time we need it the most,” bar manager Jenn Stefanacci posted on her Facebook page in response to the city’s move. “Way to kick us while we are down.”
City Commissioner Sam Kaufman on Sunday sent out an email statement on the parking zone decision, saying it wasn’t good.
“Not good for business, not good for locals and not good for tourists,” he wrote. “The city of Key West needs to work out a compromise with the organizer of future Poker Run events whereby there are the appropriate agreements in place for an orderly, safe and fun event.”
“They erred on the side of public safety,” said City Commissioner Clayton Lopez, whose district includes lower Duval Street. “We still had to be prepared. I’m glad they did do something.”
Lopez said he hopes the city can craft a better plan next year but wouldn’t criticize city managers. “That may not get me votes but it’s a realistic point of view,” he said. “Sometimes you have to make these kinds of decisions.”
While Peterson’s blames last year’s canceled event on Hurricane Irma, it had been on hold and then canceled as organizers scrambled to find a nonprofit partner. The event costs at least $30,000 to close the street for two days.
Phil Peterson created the Keys poker run in 1971 as a way to bring business to the region during the slow tourism season. After his death, son Drew Peterson has kept it going.
City commissioners had approved the permits. Kaufman voted against it, saying the event attracts gang members. No application was submitted for this year’s event.
The Key West Sunrise Rotary in 2016 dropped its sponsorship of the event and a biker brawl at the Rumor Lounge downtown left some city leaders wary of allowing the event to continue.
Peterson’s, on its website, said it’s too much risk legally for someone to take on the closure of Duval. “The city of Key West did not want to take the risk even though the Poker Run brings millions of dollars in tourist spending, other revenue and subsequent taxes to the city.”