The state of Florida is preparing to celebrate a significant birthday.
Next year will mark the 500th anniversary of Juan Ponce de Leon's discovery and exploration of the peninsular Sunshine State, and a local nonprofit is working to ensure that Key West is a big part of the yearlong festivities.
"Everyone knows, or thinks they know, that Ponce de Leon discovered Florida in the 1500s while searching for the Fountain of Youth," said Bruce Neff, founder of Historic Markers Inc., the nonprofit that created a series of historic markers for various significant buildings and sites in Key West. The markers offer a free walking tour, phone application and website.
The organization recently created a project known as "Historic Key West: 500 Years of Paradise" to coincide with the statewide "Viva Florida 500" anniversary celebrations.
Historic Markers has been designated as Key West's official liaison with the Florida Department of State, which is planning the anniversary events.
"This statewide commemoration is the perfect venue to feature our rich, multicultural and heritage to a worldwide audience," Neff said, adding that cultural tourists interested in history and architecture, represent the second-largest and fastest-growing segment of Key West's tourism economy. "With an aging national population, these cultural tourists represent the future of our tourism economy."
Neff further explained that Ponce de Leon, in reality, likely landed on Florida's shores around present-day Melbourne or Cape Canaveral, not St. Augustine, and there is no mention of him seeking the Fountain of Youth until folklore created that legend almost 100 years later.
"But we do know that Ponce de Leon did discover the Gulfstream current, and found that it traveled north," Neff said. "He also named the Florida Keys Los Martires (The Martyrs) and the Tortugas island chain.
"From 1513 to the 1700s, the Florida Keys were a Spanish colony," Neff said, adding that the Keys were under Spain's rule for longer than the island chain has been part of the United States.
Neff this week has launched a streetlight banner program to be installed in January. Thirty-nine banners will be installed along Duval Street, imprinted with the name of a business sponsor as well as a "Historical Nugget" of information about Key West's history. An additional 45 banners will be installed at Mallory Square, and will feature information about Key West, such as "Key West was the home of Florida's first millionaire in 1890," "1900 Population: Key West 19,000 -- Miami 500."
The red, white and blue will be printed on both sides, and offer local businesses a sponsorship opportunity for $900 to $1,500 for the whole year.
Neff also has launched a new website, historickeywest.org, which will feature a free event calendar for businesses and organizations to advertise the events they create to coincide with the historic anniversary. The event calendar will link to hundreds of thousands of potential customers through Visit Florida, Viva Florida 500 and the Monroe County Tourist Development Council.
"There's no end of the events that can be created to coincide with the 500th anniversary," Neff said, suggesting that a local boxing match could incorporate conquistadors. Fishing tournaments could use the discovery of the Gulf Stream. The possibilities are endless, he said, and the events will be advertised for free on the new historickeywest.org website.
"The online ads will get organizers to a market they've never reached before."
The website also features hundreds of historic Key West photos as well as a page that encourages all Key West residents to tell the story of how they became a part of Key West's history.
"'Our 500 Years of Paradise' theme operates under the simple premise of whether you've lived in Florida for five months or can trace your family back 500 years, you have a story to tell," Neff told The Citizen last week, adding that some people may choose to write the story of how they came on vacation 10 years ago and never left. Or they may share a story about Key West fishing trips. All will become a lasting part of Key West's recorded history, Neff said.
The nonprofit also is producing a documentary about Key West's history, and has designed "I made history in Key West" T-shirts that will feature a business logo on the front breast and a historic map on the back.
"We really need to dip into our most underutilized feature -- our history -- to tap into cultural tourism," Neff said.