U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio visited the Florida Keys on Friday to speak with locals about the region’s struggles with tourism in the face of environmental challenges and hurricane scares.
The Republican praised Keys officials for recovering after 2017’s Hurricane Irma.
“It is inspiring when I come back to see the recovery, the building and the enduring spirit of this treasured corner of Florida,” Rubio said. “This place is very special to me personally.”
Rubio was speaking after a committee hearing held Friday morning in the Keys, which drew about 40 people to Marathon City Hall in the Middle Keys.
He hosted a panel discussion titled “Florida’s Coastal Economy: Opportunities and Challenges in the Florida Keys.”
The U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship held the field hearing with the goal of examining the unique opportunities and challenges facing Florida’s coastal economy and small businesses in the Florida Keys.
Guest panelists included Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi, Monroe County Tourist Development Council Director of Marketing Stacey Mitchell, and World Angling, Inc CEO Will Benson.
Benson told Rubio the Keys need help in restoring its ecosystem, just like the Everglades and Florida Bay.
“We are currently watching the last remaining parts of the coral reef die from a disease we don’t understand,” said Benson, a flats fishing guide for 20 years who works more than 200 days a year.
“We are at a breaking point,” said Benson. “We need leadership. We are watching our habitat and fishing slip away and we are arguing among ourselves.”
The threat of a hurricane brewing in the Atlantic is enough to hurt tourism, said Mitchell.
“A direct hit isn’t necessary,” she said.
Key West dodged Irma, but the city dependent on tourist dollars still suffered economically, she said.
Even Hurricane Dorian, which did nothing to the Keys, gave visitors hesitation to come down U.S. 1, Mitchell said.
On the recent Labor Day weekend, lodging was down by 60 percent.
“That’s just lodging,” Mitchell said.
“This September has been significantly slower than the last average September [in 2016],” she said. “Many business owners told me next year they will close in September. Just the idea of a storm brewing out there has significant effects on tourism.”
Rubio also asked about the state of workforce housing, which is scant throughout the Keys.
Gastesi said the county will build its own for its workers, just as the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and the Monroe County School District plan to do.