Florida Keys News
Friday, May 20, 2011
City owes tourism to the late Frank Romano

He has been called the father of modern-day tourism marketing for Key West, a creator of Fantasy Fest, the founder of Key West Aloe and a supporter of countless charities, but many people in Key West lovingly just called Frank Romano their friend.

"He just loved Key West so much," a broken-hearted Joe Liszka said in the wake of the death of his life partner, business partner and best friend Thursday morning at the age of 88.

The two were together for more than 40 years, and could finish each other's sentences and predict each other's reactions to a joke over lunches at Louie's Backyard and other local venues.

Romano and Liszka arrived in Key West in the 1970s, when Romano's painful sunburn ultimately led to the creation of a skin care and cosmetics empire known as Key West Aloe.

It was Liszka's observation about October's ideal weather, but empty hotels, that led to the legendary Fantasy Fest -- now the island's largest event.

Liszka and Romano created the event, along with Fast Buck Freddie's owners Tony Falcone and the late Bill Conkle.

"Frank led the charge back in the 1980s for a modern-day tourism marketing program," said Andy Newman, of Newman PR, which has been publicizing the Florida Keys for more than 20 years.

"Before that, marketing was just a $100,000 line item in the county's budget that paid for billboards and brochures up and down the turnpike. Frank knew they needed a serious promotional strategy and he had heard about a tourism tax that other places were collecting."

Key West voters approved the tourism "bed tax" in 1982, launching the organization now known as the Monroe County Tourist Development Council (TDC).

A year later, Keys voters also approved the tax, expanding the TDC to a countywide entity that now is responsible for a multimillion-dollar marketing program that puts "heads in beds," which is what Romano always knew was needed in the town he loved.

"There was a tremendous amount of pioneering work that he and the other initial members of the TDC did," Newman said.

"There was so much groundbreaking work being done for the community back in the 1980s."

Romano was known as much for his quick smile and generous spirit as he was for his business acumen.

His bushy eyebrows frequently would shoot up in delight, or furrow with concern, whenever he was dealing with people.

"He always had time for people," Newman said, recalling a sign behind Romano's desk that stated, "The king is entertaining audiences today." "There's an empty place in my heart right now; he just cared so damn much for the community."

There's a gaping hole in the Romano/Liszka family as well.

"My father, mother and both of my brothers died 30 years ago, so [Frank] was my surrogate father and the only family member I had until my son, Cody, was born," said Romano's niece, Kim.

"Two nights before my uncle died, I watched Joe tenderly feed him, and the love they shared was never more palpable."

Romano's accomplishments include the Key West Chamber of Commerce's prestigious Hall of Fame, the American Red Cross' Humanitarian of the Year Award, AIDS Help board member, chamber president and a host of other positions.

Before his retirement and arrival in Key West, Romano had owned a cosmetics factory in New York.

"Last year my uncle told me that he'd had a wonderful, full life with Joe and he'd done everything he'd wanted to do," Kim Romano said.

Information about funeral services will be forthcoming.

mmiles@keysnews.com

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