Florida Keys News
Wednesday, December 5, 2012
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City OKs $1M for gym
Also: Duval on foot, shelter, trash

City commissioners on Tuesday unanimously agreed to reserve $1 million from a recent property sale for the repair of the ailing Frederick Douglass Gym in Bahama Village.

The vote came after some emotional discussion about the gym's historic value, having served and survived the end of the school segregation era, and some frank talk about that fact that the gym's condition is unknown.

Not even the resolution's sponsor, City Commissioner Clayton Lopez, could estimate how much it would cost to fully repair the gym, at 111 Olivia St.

"I could just not fathom the day that we would not have the Douglass Gym as part of what Key West is, and what we came from and to be there in the future for our children," said City Commissioner Tony Yaniz, the newest elected member. "Without the Douglass Gym, Key West is not 100 percent Key West."

Mayor Craig Cates said while he wants the gym preserved, he was concerned that with the future Truman Waterfront project, the island would end up with two large community centers in one Old Town corner.

"We need as many community centers as we can have," said City Commissioner Jimmy Weekley. "I think it's wise to continue with both of these facilities."

The gym was added to the Douglass School, long ago torn down, in the 1950s, but has been so neglected that for a year now the building hasn't had working restrooms, a kitchen or offices.

So while the basketball floor and stage areas are open to children daily, the city has sealed off other portions of the site as unsafe.

City Manager Bob Vitas recommended a study of what the gym needs, and noted that the site has structural damage, particularly to the first-floor offices, where the ceiling fell in a year ago.

"In the main building you have a one-story building, which is where the office is, that actually is pulling away," said Vitas. "It's pulling away from the existing principal structure, the main gym. We're not going to be able to preserve that part. We need a structural analysis of the gym itself, similar to Glynn Archer."

Vitas said it's better to "invest properly," than "going in and putting a big Band-Aid on the building, which I would never recommend."

The gym had a commercial kitchen, Vitas said, but maybe a more basic kitchen could serve just as well.

Every commissioner, and the mayor, voted in favor of the save-the-gym resolution. Only City Commissioners Teri Johnston and Mark Rossi voiced concern over committing to the repairs before knowing the details and price tag.

"Obviously, we're right back at the same crossroads where we haven't maintained a city building," said Johnston, a local contractor. "We're being asked to put money into a program where we have no maintenance program. We have got to put money toward sustaining our buildings."

Also Tuesday night,

the commission:

• Voted 5-2 to direct city staff to plan for a 24-hour, seven-day a week homeless shelter that would include meals, safe storage areas and social services.

Rossi and Commissioner Billy Wardlow, whose district would remain home to the homeless shelter, voted no to the mayor's proposal, which had no financial details.

Cates has long wanted the city to recreate its overnight shelter into a one-stop, comprehensive center for homeless men and women. Voting yes were Commissioners Johnston, Lopez, Weekley and Mayor Cates.

• Voted 4-3 to put the city's garbage collection contract out to bid in 2014, when Waste Management Inc.'s longtime hold on the islandwide job expires. Voting no were Rossi, Wardlow and Commissioner Yaniz.

The decision marks the first time the city has sought competitive bids for the contract, valued at least $5 million a year, since 2000. Waste Management's original contract included extensions, which were all approved.

The vote came at 9:30 p.m., after much debate over whether the bid decision meant a better deal for citizens.

"If you're going to cut corners, we're all going to pay for that," said Mary Maxwell during the public input portion, praising Waste Management. "I think we should applaud their efforts," Maxwell said.

• Voted 6-1 to have city staff explore -- only explore -- the idea of turning Duval Street into a pedestrian mall, closing off to motorized traffic the 14-block signature tourist attraction.

"When we shut the street down, something magical happens," said Yaniz. "I want to go down there and I want to hang out there. Most of the locals I've talked to have said, 'Yes, we'd go back downtown (for a pedestrian mall).'"

Mark Rossi said the city paid plenty for a traffic study that showed the idea wouldn't pan out.

Yaniz pressed on.

"This is a vote to ask our competent, capable city staff to look at the pros and cons over an 180-day period to see if it's viable and feasible to do this," Yaniz said. "It may be that it's not."

The city has been down this road, Wardlow said.

"We did a traffic study and a man stood right there," Wardlow said, pointing toward the podium. "He said it's not a good idea. The trolleys, pedicabs and everything else will now be sent down Simonton Street and White Street. It's not going to work down those two streets."

But Weekley, Lopez and Johnston agreed a study was warranted, given the sheer volume of times the subject has come up before the dais.

Maybe this study would put the idea to rest, one way or another, Weekley said.

The mayor said he would support a study, but added, "If this puts it to rest once and for all, I doubt that."

Only Wardlow voted against the pedestrian mall study, allowing the item to pass by a 6-1 vote.

Rossi's support seemed to surprise Yaniz.

"Happy holidays, Commissioner Rossi," Yaniz said.

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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