Marathon is one step closer to landing the Point of Entry moniker, a designation vital to opening the city up to international travel.
Gov. Rick Scott signed off last week on plans to allow Marathon's Border Patrol station to carry out inspections on vessels arriving at the City Marina and planes landing at the Florida Keys Marathon Airport. Typically, Customs officers perform the inspections.
"Given the importance of transportation, Florida's economy and its future, and the assurance that this expansion will not result in any additional cost to the taxpayer or those who elect not to use the service, I support this request from the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners and respectfully request your timely approval when received," Scott wrote in a letter to United States Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin.
The request was made by the County Commission because, though it is located in Marathon, the airport is owned by Monroe County.
As envisioned and discussed in meetings with Homeland Security personnel and city and county officials, the service would get its feet under it by at first being run out of the existing Border Patrol facilities and having costs covered by user fees -- paid only by those who use the service.
"If we have the cooperation that we seem to have had in the past from Homeland Security, and if they will allow the inspections to be done by the existing facility, then the cost to the surrounding community will be virtually nothing," said Marathon Vice Mayor Dick Ramsay, who has spearheaded Marathon's efforts.
Though not finished yet, the drive to open as a Port of Entry has been years-long, and the hurdle of getting the governors backing major, according to Ramsay.
"We've been after this letter alone since 2009. It is a big step. The time line from this point forward is a lot quicker than what we've done up to this point," said Ramsay. "We are within reach of our goal. It's now boiling down to politics."
He wasn't alone in his interpretation of the step as a major one.
"All of us that have been working hard in pursuit of this goal know that without the tremendous efforts of U.S. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida House Representative Ron Saunders, you the BOCC, the Mayors and City Councils of our Keys sister cities and the Chambers of Commerce, we never would have gotten out of the starting gate, much less come within sight of our goal," Marathon City Manager Roger Hernstadt wrote in a letter to the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners.
The next step will be a meeting of city, county and Homeland Security officials to formulate plans for the service, which will eventually need to be signed off on by federal authorities.
"They have indicated they have the manpower," Ramsay said of Border Patrol. "I'm really hoping we can get the cooperation from the different agencies. We'd like to make sure we have the volume to support a facility. The only objections you are going to find are from the union people who feel they are losing out on a job."
Ramsay said that impression is false, as the Border Patrol inspections would only be a temporary step to gauge whether Marathon could support a full-time service.
"Once we prove there is enough volume, then we can move forward and build a facility," he said.
Despite Gov. Scott's stipulation that user fees cover all costs, Ramsay said he sees other possibilities should the service prove to be popular.
"His reality is people are taxed enough. I do feel that there is some wiggle room in the negotiations that if the city could foresee a major economic boom that he would back down on that solid position of not costing a dime to anyone," Ramsay said. "There are some times a city has to invest on behalf of its residents."
All of that assumes that current proposals to use Border Patrol and existing facilities get approval.
"If we are not able to use those facilities, then it becomes a question of dollars and cents, and whether the business community is willing to put up the funds," Ramsay said.