Charter crews scurry with wheelbarrows of ice, servers ready for breakfast at the Schooner Wharf, and at Harpoon Harry's on Caroline Street, and the day's first tourists trickle onto Lazy Way and its curio shacks. Meanwhile, guests near Conch Republic Seafood sign releases, queuing up alongside the boats that will take them to water adventures.
This is the Key West Bight of the present, shaped by Key West's tourist industry and a far cry from its days as a series of shrimp docks, when a community grocery store catered to live-aboards and other marine folk.
The neighborhood continues its transformation, with the bight of the future likely to host a 96-room hotel, a brewery with a rooftop bar, and a West Marine superstore. Most -- though not all -- of the people who live and do business in the area say they welcome the growth, but there is an air of caution as to how it should be managed, and how much change is a good thing.
"I have been waiting for seven years for something to happen here," said Theo Glorie, owner of the Coffee Plantation on Caroline Street. "This is the best part of town in regards to things to do and things to see. I am very, very excited about the future. I like the excitement; I think it is wonderful for our neighborhood."
Keeping it local?
With its weathered store entrances on one side and a creep of newer businesses closer to the water -- coupled with unfinished projects left in limbo and sites where newer projects will soon begin -- the Caroline Street corridor that lines the working waterfront has a unique if fractured personality reflective of all three phases, past, present and future.
One of the oldest businesses in the neighborhood is Key West Marine Hardware, known locally as "Los Cubanitos" or simply "The Cubans," a shop that sells all manner of equipment for boats and cuts dock-line by the foot. Much of the same equipment can be found at West Marine, on the corner of Caroline and William streets, but the hardware store has managed to hang on to enough core customers. While it's been tough, they have remained in business.
"We are doing what we have always done," said Humberto Garrido, the third generation of his family to operate the store. "We do the best we can, offering the things local people need and not the things that a national store thinks they need -- what people need locally and getting the mix right."
The West Marine superstore slated for the corner of Caroline and Grinnell, plans for which have not yet been submitted to the city, concerns Garrido. But he says his concerns are related more to what it means to the neighborhood as a whole rather than his own business.
"I always wonder how much we should keep people from doing things they want with their property," Garrido said. "But I just don't want to see all this become what people don't come here for, for it to become like Biscayne or San Francisco. That kind of commerciality, national chains, is the last thing in the world you want to see. Like a Bass Pro or a Burger King. It is the national corporations on the waterfront that you have got to keep from happening."
Like some local mariners and Key West Bight residents, Garrido mourns the loss of the one grocery store that served the area, the Waterfront Market.
That operation, which fronted the bight and also stretches around to a city-owned parking lot expected to remain after big changes to the area, will not be resurrected. Instead the building will be used to house a restaurant and brewery complex. Live entertainment will be featured on the roof.
That raised the hackles of a few local residents, though assurances from the owners that sound will be baffled have allayed their fears.
One of the people with special concerns was developer Pritam Singh, whose planned 96-room hotel has drawn limited but vocal opposition from Eaton Street attorney Robert Goldman. Singh took a great interest in how the brewery was developing, out of fear that his guests, whom he already needed to protect from music at the neighboring Schooner Wharf bar. His concerns are now allayed, and he told Key West planners recently that he supports the brewery and expects the operation will be a good neighbor.
Goldman's opposition to Singh's hotel is now legend. He was not alone, at first. Shirley Freeman, a former Monroe County mayor who lives in the neighborhood, wanted to see Singh's operation halved, but her protests have waned.
Goldman continues to threaten litigation against the hotel, however. One of his concerns is that it will obscure the view toward the wharf. The land upon which it will stand is currently an empty lot, once the site of an RV and motor home camp called Jabour's.
"A lot of our neighbors are just tired of fighting," Goldman said, when asked why there is not more vocal opposition to Singh's hotel. "They have either foreclosed or sold, or they have made those into vacation homes."
A hub of activity
Key West planning director Don Craig has been heavily involved with the regulatory aspects of bight area development, both what is seen and what will be seen in the future. While he appreciates the excitement of people looking ahead toward what it will be in years to come, Craig doesn't want to shortchange what the bight and its environs have already become.
"It is already a hub," he said. "Thousands upon thousands of people each year flock to the Key West Bight. They park in the lot, they go to the restaurants that have been anchors for years and years, the Half Shell, Turtle Kraals and the Schooner Wharf. What's happening is it is becoming improved."
New lighting and new paving is beginning to appear. Much of it is paid for with dedicated tax money through the Tax Increment Financing program as a designated "blighted" area.
"This is all further cementing what is already there now, and it is becoming more of its own identifiable self," said Craig, who identified drainage issues as a key problem the neighborhood still faces. Plans are already in the works for those improvements as well.
Concerns that the bight area will become another Duval Street are, to many who make a living there, overstated.
The bight's personality is unique enough, residents and workers say, to weather any future change, so long as Key West's relationship with the water that surrounds it remains a dominant thread in its fabric.
"We like to think this is still a working neighborhood," said Shelley McInnis, general manager at Pepe's Café on Caroline Street, who has worked there since 1984. "The nature of the work has changed. When I started here there were shrimp boats, then we saw that change and there were pleasure boats and charters. The nature of the area as a working waterfront has evolved."