Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Channel Widening

The City Commission meets tonight at Old City Hall at 6pm and the newspaper is anticipating a knock down drag out fight over a referendum proposal to study plans to consider widening the ship channel. At least that had been the general impression but now the wording has been released and the Citizen seems to think if the referendum is approved and put to the voters and subsequently passed by them, the channel widening will be a done deal. Oh dear, storm clouds are brewing in clear blue sky...

“Shall the city of Key West pursue
modifications to widen a portion of the
Key West Harbor Deep Water Channel
to facilitate safe navigation?”

The sentence above is proposed as the wording for a citywide referendum on channel widening. I live in the county so I will not be eligible to vote, but in this case my vote would be a simple no. The story is that cruise ship lines are building ever larger cruise ships and the Key West harbor channel will not be wide or deep enough to accommodate the mega cruise ships with their six thousand passengers. Supporters of channel widening argue that Key West depends on cruise ships for millions in direct revenue in harbor dues, as well as millions more from tourists and crew spending money in our city. Furthermore cruise ship visitors frequently become return tourists arriving by land and air to spend more time, and more money in Key West.Currently the largest cruise ships with 3,000 passengers are accommodated at the Navy Outer Mole (seen above) and the Westin Pier which pays 25% of docking fees to the city. Smaller ships also dock at Mallory Square which, if they are there at sunset creates conflicts with the Sunset Celebration organizers. Local bigwig Ed Swift, the ultimate civic booster, is urging support for channel widening saying this is the way of the future and the city needs the money and shouldn't get left out of the next round of cruise ship business. Opponents of course argue that mammoth cruise ships will be another nail in the coffin of the preferred image of Key West as a funky off beat destination already imperilled by the thousands who already disembark here. They also oppose the city spending five million dollars just to study channel widening which will require all sorts of federal permits. The fact is that the channel into Key West harbor is not a naturally deep channel currently carrying a minimum of 35 feet depth. In the 19th century the harbor approaches were quite deep enough but with the advent of modern shipping the Navy has widened the channel to accommodate warships and now the extra widening will add to the silt and debris carried to the reef and further environmental depredation will ensue.
I do not see this issue as a simple eco-mentalist anti-business debate versus economic growth. In a very real sense this decision will set the tone for Key West's sense of itself for years to come. If Walmart really is coming to Rockland Key it will be possible for visitors to ignore the box store as long as long businesses can hold out against the Walton family depredations so familiar in communities across this country. However if the number of cruise ship passengers will increase vastly Key west will change under their onslaught. in a town like key West which has little land mass and high desirability prices will always be above average for homes and rents and the threat is ever present that the community will be replaced by exasperated gentrification. However if the referendum is presented in the wording used at the top of this essay, and those words are approved by the voters, then the city will have the green light to study widening, approve and attempt to raise money to get the job done with no further public consideration. I don't want to see the city impoverished but I don't think the only cruise ships sailing in the future will be megaships only. Key West would make a great destination for small intimate cruises already popular.

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