Fantasy Fest may be the testing ground for the chaos to come this winter when snowbirds and tourists crowd the streets and discover to their horror that Key West's main artery, North Roosevelt Boulevard, resembles the first day of the first Battle of the Somme minus the barbed wire and explosions. It's all mud and puddles and one way signs which sow confusion and delays and impatience. And the town is expected to be packed to capacity over the next couple of weeks.
I heard a comment from a friend about one hotel bar tender who, to her great astonishment apparently, has had only one weekend this summer of no guests, no drinkers and thus no money. The rest of the time her bar tending cup overfloweth with unexpected wealth. In this uncertain economy I am astonished by the numbers of visitors but not everyone is hurting. And they come to Key West to let off steam in droves. This picture put me in mind of the series The Walking Dead.
Key West is often described as being south of reality and even though the job market isn't the free wheeling affair it used to be unemployment numbers are relatively low. Around here you lose your job and you leave, unless you don't actually need a job. One of the candidates for State Attorney lost her job as Chief Assistant in the last round of elections when she disagreed with the winner of the race. This time round she beat him in the primary and may very well win the top job this month. She spent the interregnum in exile in Central Florida. No job equals no Key West for most of us, no matter how important our titles while in office.
My own job continues to astonish me. Just this week our union ratified a two year contract with the city and we get three percent raises each year, night differential goes up next year which is good for us night shift workers, and we will also get minimum pay for subpoenas. All very cool but how it happened I have no idea in a world where unemployment is rampant and not getting better. I just hope the visitors keep coming even if they choose to wear peculiar headgear. The city is hoping for tons of visitors even if all they wear is body paint and peculiar headgear.
The city commission has decided to put the harbor channel widening proposal to a citizen vote. The idea is a two part problem. First there will be a referendum on whether or not to ask the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a five million dollar study of how to widen the ship channel to accommodate vast spacious new cruise ships. Then if the study says its a go, and you'd better believe it will, there should be a second referendum on whether or not the widening should be done. The forces aligned in favor of the project are powerful and top of the list of reasons to do it is: employment. Argue with that if you can, and in this town coral preservation is a distant second to work judging by the voices raised in support of widening.
The city commission has also approved some sort of park for the Truman Waterfront though the newspaper article was decently vague about the details. The marina proposed by the Spottswood family may or may not be built though now it is supported as a way to pay for the park. How to pay for open space seems like the least of this city's problems but it is yet to be decided and I am pretty certain the people in charge have a plan. They spend their lives pulling financial rabbits from hats.
The county commission has voted to build a three million dollar fire station on Stock Island to replace the funky shed currently claiming to be a fire station. The new facility is promoted by Stock Island boosters as a suitable upgrade for the future of the down at heel island whose trailer parks feed the need of neighboring Key West for workers. The idea is that hotels and marinas and stuff which are expected to pop up like mushrooms on Stock Island will be reassured by the presence of a proper fire station. That Key West is making noises about annexing Key Haven and Stock Island doesn't come into the calculation to build the fire station.
Goodness gracious, so much stuff going on. These convulsions should lead to a new improved visitor experience one way and another. I'd like to see a shady park at Truman Waterfront but the fear always is that bums will end up owning the space. It's happened at Bayview Park where seating is removed periodically making the space untenable for normal people who like sit with their feet tucked under their hips, rather than with their backsides in the dirt. Personally I'd like to see the Truman Waterfront added to Fort Zachary State Park which charges a modest entrance fee and is mercifully bum-free.
The newspaper has been carrying lots of anonymous comments about Key West's resident population of bums. There is an idea floating around, delightfully naïve in its simplicity, that the willfully homeless should be shipped elsewhere, as though there is a city somewhere in this country that is actively seeking to augment its own population of dispossessed. Key West's next export: heroic hobos sent North. Failing that the back up plan is to keep on keeping on. Local charitable providers are in a tizz over how to keep running the homeless shelter on Stock Island. The main fund raising entity has been running the shelter and has decided that's more rewarding than seeking grants for everyone else so they upped and quit and said they will run the overnight shelter and all other groups can go seek their own funding. The funny thing is even though the deadline for a replacement organization was looming, the city had done nothing to replace the Southernmost Homelesss Assistance League as the operator of the Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter. Now to everyone's astonishment, except the city's, SHAL shall run KOTS indefinitely.
It's funny how the city seems to stumble from here to there, pratfall to pratfall like the Marx Brothers, who's antics were carefully planned and choreographed well out of sight of the people buying the tickets to watch them. I keep wishing Key West had a vision but I'm pretty sure the city leaders, elected and not, have a vision alright and it is being implemented step by step. And it's not just a vision, it's a plan that will be paid for, which is amazing to me. The Mayor, who had moved to Cape Coral, came back a few years ago, re-established residence and announced he wanted City Hall to be re-built at Glynn Archer School on White Street. Guess what? No one knows how much it will cost, perhaps as much as $21 million, but the city's new administrative center will be built right where the mayor originally wanted it. It's taken a few years but it's going to happen, doubters are cast aside. I think the location is excellent and as long as they can preserve the facade it will look great, and as far as paying for it, that doesn't worry me. This town has an amazing capacity to raise money. Join me in being amazed.
So this weekend Key West has a genteel street fair in Bahama Village because Goombay always happens before Fantasy Fest. And then next week the gross bad taste starts to leak onto Duval Street culminating in an endless parade next Saturday, local floats with local themes at the front followed by the dreary plastic Krewes from Tampa Bay weighing down the back of the parade. Visitors will come in droves, eighty thousand of them, imagine that, and spend tons of money. The equivalent of 27 cruise ships in town all at once.
Locals will bitch about the crowding and the cars stopping suddenly at intersections and blocking driveways when they park. But the cash will flow for a couple of weeks until the Meeting of the Minds is over. Then peace and quiet will return for a few weeks until winter starts. The question is, will the chaos on the Boulevard spreading across town like an ink blot persuade snowbirds to stay away this winter? Businesses on the Boulevard are freaking out already about the loss of business. A taste of what Key West would be really like if tourists and snowbirds and other irritants stayed away.