Monday, August 16, 2010

Hurricanes And Headlines

We are entering the peak of hurricane season about now. I am strangely relaxed about the whole thing, probably because I am tired of hearing how awful the summer will be, how vicious the storms and how relentless the sea level rise. Until catastrophe overwhelms us I am joining my dog in her blissful attitude of acceptance and joy of whatever the weather brings. It recently rained incessantly, thanks to a tropical disturbance rolling up the Gulf of Mexico, now happily restored to mythic good health from incipient oil disaster by the mainstream press, which press corps is moving ahead with new stories to distract the public from our own backyard, ongoing, disaster of an oil spill. It ain't going away just because they sank it out of sight with 21st century Agent Orange.My Bonneville, closing in on 40,000 miles (60,000 kilometers) and due a periodic review of it's own, is running as smoothly as ever, the valve cover leak cured, for now, of oil drips by Jiri at JR Motorsports on Stock Island. Riding and photography are the sorts of activities that provoke a man to thinking too much.I keep hearing Garrison Keillor announcing "It's been a quiet week in my home town..." but the truth is, the last month while I was on vacation, Key West has been bubbling nicely, like overcooked black beans in a very small pot. Oh dear yes, summer is supposed to be the quiet time in town, punctuated by one gathering or another to raise money and keep the drinks and money flowing, but generally this is what the British press is wont to call "Silly Season." It's that time of year when nothing much is supposed to happen, as lawmakers and everyone else is on vacation and a cat caught in a tree is a headline worthy of note, especially if someone were to fall out of that tree in an effort to rescue the cat. Fall is supposed to be time enough for serious news, yet Key West is just brimming with it in between Hemingway Days, Smallest Boat Regattas, Lobster Fest, Bike Week and Fantasy Fest preparations.So it was I came home from the Grand Tour of the West and found Key West in turmoil. My goodness me, July was a quiet month for hurricanes but not for headlines. The Truman waterfront development scheme has been causing a great deal of upset as details have emerged about a plan to create a charming fake upscale enclave on land donated to the city by the US Navy. That would be 34 acres of luscious nothingness, a blank canvas upon which to create something new and wholesome for the city. And now the city is leaning toward a plan that proposes to use public funds illegally to develop open space for shops and a marina that are supposed to catapult Key West into the mega yacht luxury destination stakes. And the US Navy has even stepped in to say the plan impinges on their ability to dock their ships safely, all of which has prompted the developer to raise campaign funds for the state Attorney General and subsequently asked him to rule on the validity of using public bed tax funds to build a marina. Hmm, up till now that has not been legal, but who knows, perhaps a 500 dollar a plate fund raiser can change state law in an election year, and make a marina a "marine stadium," for funding purposes!Further to all this brouhaha the development would never actually revert to the city for the developer proposes to build it with a 34 million dollar public bond (municipal bonds! What a moment in history to sell municipal bonds! Ah public debt, public panacea!!). Not only that but the development would generate enough income to pay off the bond, pay the developer a hefty management fee and even leave left over cash, supposedly, for the city to enjoy a substantial extra income. Of course, the developers get the fee first as they would manage the property in perpetuity and the fine citizens of Key West would get the left overs and the rather low paid jobs preferred by the developers. The fact that the City has managed marinas for years quite successfully and paid it's employees a decent union living wage has nothing to do with it. Mayor Cates inexplicably seems to be siding with this plan to give away a priceless city asset, a city I am relieved not to reside in. Perhaps he fears following in the footsteps of the last President of Keys Community College. That unfortunate woman allowed her self-described "potty mouth" to drive her into unemployment reportedly because she was exceedingly unpleasant to work with in her office. Her bigger crime was to oppose these same developers who wanted to bid to build dormitories on land leased by the College. Two year colleges are forbidden by state law from competing with four year colleges by having on campus housing. The plan, which is going ahead under different leadership is to lease land at the college, build the dormitories and have them operated as a separate entity to allow out of town students access to affordable housing and for the college not to violate state law. The former President nixed the developer's plans because there was a clause in the proposal that said if the development didn't go ahead the developer would get ownership of the land by way of compensation. The former President awarded the bid to the competition and was gone shortly thereafter accused in a cross burning of epic proportions of being impossible to work with. Apparently she was.Now the woman who led the charge against her has suffered her own crucifixion in the Blue Paper accused in large headlines of fixing a friend's child's grades and came close, according to the paper to getting fired. That she didn't was either a) because she has a friend on the Board or b) because the new President is an independent person who hires and fires at will. She has denied any wrongdoing but that hasn't silenced the papers. Meanwhile also on the education front the wife of the former school superintendent has decided to plead guilty to charges of stealing some $400,000 and is to be sentenced at the end of the month. The going rate I hear may be six years in prison. What a ghastly waste, and now with a proposal on the ballot to have future school superintendents appointed not elected I have no doubt future school boards, like the one that was asleep at the wheel during this crisis, will get to appoint their own serf to the leadership position. One finds it hard to remain sanguine about the future of education one way and another and that's a shame because teaching has remained a high priority so far in this district even as schools across the nation face slash and burn budget cuts. God knows why anyone would want to repeal a national tax cut of three percent for people earning more than $250,000 a year. Our schools certainly don't need the money, though perhaps the very useful War in Afghanistan might. Monroe County development plans seem to have fallen on hard times. A proposal to turn Wisteria Island (Christmas Tree Island to locals) into a second upscale Sunset Key development has apparently failed and the dismal dead tree spoil island faces no immediate prospects of change. Equally the light industrial suburb of Stock Island, home to trailers, fishing docks and small handy entrepreneurs faced the immediate prospect of urbanization and upscale development all of which came crashing down when when the developers went bust to the tune of a hundred million dollars. The Depression may have saved the bacon of the working people of Stock Island for the time being but Higgs Beach is now on the county agenda for "improvement." At a time when municipalities across the country are turning out street lights and reducing back roads to gravel to save money, development continues unaffected in the Keys. The idea for Higgs Beach's future is to shift the road back from the beach, clip a corner off the ample dog park and devote more effort to the beach front. All this while beautifying and somehow making this county park in the middle of the city less attractive to bums. The winter population of homeless-by-choice in Key West is staggering and large numbers choose to congregate here at the beach. Why Higgs needs to be the object of lavish financial attention I'm not sure but there are still many people who believe the way to the future is through continued consumption at ever increasing rates. There is a delightful air of unreality about it all, as one reads of tens of millions of unemployed Up North, Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami going bankrupt because it is the only public hospital with a mandated conscience, and thus obliged to take in the indigent, uninsured and hopelessly underfunded. It was going to be an issue to figure out how to keep the recipient of Life Flights from the Keys open. On that subject we have heard no more. The Life Flights continue ($20,000 for a one way helicopter ticket. Pay as you go.).
A vast redevelopment plan on North Roosevelt, long overdue, is scheduled to get underway next year and last a couple of years. The idea is to resurface the road, make it less able to puddle rainwater, create proper sidewalks and bike paths and render the main road into town a more pleasant and usable highway. They will also add a traffic light at the entrance to Sears to contribute to congestion, no doubt, but there is no talk of any pedestrian bridges to make crossing the four lane road on foot any the less dicey.There had been a plan by the big time developers who have eyes on the Truman Waterfront to create a vast convention center out of the hotels they own all along the entrance to the city. The Beachside was to have been the beginning of that development but it failed in fine style and the Mormons of Marriott fame took it over. One more hotel in the chain in the Southernmost (licentious) City. The airport redevelopment which I suspect was a publicly funded part of the Convention Center plan has been completed at ridiculous public expense and horribly over budget, but the convention development seems to have gone the way of so many projects in this Depression. Frankly the way the line of hotels currently presents itself, the Holiday Inn the ex-Radisson the Comfort Inn etc...doesn't look that enticing but it seems we are stuck with them, and the prison-like brown walls of Fortress Marriott Beachside for the time being.
I heard recently that maybe half the apartments at the super luxury Steam Plant are still for sale, with their rooftop pools and private garages and secret elevators and I-don't-know-what overlooking Key West Bight. The newspaper reported the taxes owed to the city were in arrears so that doesn't bode well but a friend told me you can pick up one these units for a million and a half dollars which is about 50% off the original price and many are available. Ed Swift has done a lot for his hometown, and despite the fact people slag him, I'm not one of them. Drive a Conch Train and make a decent living in a town that likes to pay minimum wage and charge maximum rent. Meridien West on Stock Island still looks good after several years of low income occupancy and it's a shame Meridien East isn't sprouting just yet because decent housing remains unaffordable for many people. Perhaps we need a few more millionaires to buy absurd private loggias at the old power plant to get a few more low income units. The Railway Condos Swift built next door, the apartments for ordinary people, also look good at a fraction of the cost and offer affordable decent living close to downtown. Other developers could try and do half as much.And so we come round to Election Time with a thin slate of candidates to choose amongst. Florida is a closed primary state so I get to choose among a handful of hopeless Democrats vying in this run-up to the main event in the Fall. I'm going to vote to retain the elected Schools Superintendent in the vain hope that a split ticket may provide some slight oversight in our tormented school district. We seem to be suffering a surfeit of the new Superintendent's best buds from Up North lately, while locals are being sidelined in large numbers. No one is squeaking about that little issue, perhaps hoping that they won't be the ones to be knocked off their employment perches in this fearsome job market.The unfailing truth about working for a living in the Keys is that when your job is lost, so is life in Paradise. And that unhappy truth makes serfs of us all. Bring on the development and let a few employment crumbs slide off the table to our out stretched hands. A job, a wage, perchance a year or two more to eat, to drink, to sleep, to dream. And to wake up to the sight of sun and coconuts and one more fine new building rising like a phoenix from the ruin of the Conchs' little paradise lost.