Florida Keys News - Islamorada/KL Free Press
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
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FIU balks on Green Turtle Hammock site for Keys center

ISLAMORADA -- Florida International University and the nonprofit Keys Ahead have decided against Upper Matecumbe Key's Green Turtle Hammock Park as the location for a proposed Florida Keys scientific research and education center.

"It doesn't appear to be a go," Mike Heithaus, executive dean of FIU's School of Environmental Arts and Society, said last week. "I think one of the major issues we had was finding the funding to bring the facility up to standard."

In June, the university, aided by the local nonprofit Keys Ahead, told the Village Council of its interest in the 7.5-acre bayfront property, located at mile marker 81.

Features of the property include a boat basin, an old waterfront home that has more recently been used for offices and a second former home closer to the Overseas Highway.

The timing seemed right, too. The village recently had to take over day-to-day operational control of the park after the nonprofit Green Turtle Hammock Foundation decided to give up its operating lease.

At a June 28 meeting, the Village Council directed the city's staff to work on a new Green Turtle Hammock lease agreement, this time with Keys Ahead.

What stopped the deal was that the site needed to be made compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, said Heithaus and Village Councilman Ted Blackburn, who was involved in the negotiations.

"They didn't realize going into agreement how expensive it really was," Blackburn said.

Heithaus said he wasn't sure of the total estimated cost of the improvements. He referred that question to Paul Landrum, associate FIU director of planned giving for arts and sciences, who did not return a Free Press email or voice mail.

Despite the setback, FIU remains interested in a location in the Upper Keys, Heithaus said. In the meantime, he said, the School of Environmental Arts and Society is pressing forward with outreach programs it began in conjunction with Key Ahead this year. Among the programs on the plate are training seminars for Monroe County school teachers.

Heithaus said FIU is also hoping to put together a family science night in the Keys sometime soon. The university hired education coordinator Amy Heemsoth this year to work on Keys programs.

"This is a setback in terms of a physical location," Heithaus said. "But it is not a setback in terms of the programs we are going to be running in the Keys."

Blackburn said the village may have to take extraordinary steps to find a tenant at Green Turtle Hammock. He said he'd be willing to consider providing a $100,000 grant to an organization willing to take over operation of the property under the proviso that the money would have to be returned if the site were not made ADA compliant.

rsilk@keysnews.com

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