Florida Keys News
Wednesday, January 2, 2013
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Town leaders upbeat about new year

ISLAMORADA -- The village will obtain more funding help for sewers, the town's legal department will be restructured and a new visitor center will help encourage more tourists to spend time and money in Islamorada before they head down the highway to Key West.

Those are some of the predictions local leaders are making as the new year begins.

"I'm counting on funding," said Mayor Ken Philipson, who added that he'll be looking for $20 million in federal, state or BP-related sewer grants in order to eliminate any need for the village to levy another sewer assessment in 2013.

"Our number one goal is still the same and that's looking for funding," Philipson said.

Councilman Mike Forster predicted that, overall, the newly started $113 million sewer project will proceed smoothly this year.

"I expect it to go well. I really do. There's a lot more safeguards in place than there was before," he said, referencing the troubled north Plantation Key project of last decade.

Forster also predicted that the Village Council will form an Islamorada wastewater board this year, which will make day-to-day oversight and management decisions relating to the project. Last month, the council agreed to hold a workshop to discuss the concept, which has circulated in the village for years.

The wastewater board, if one is formed, won't be the only change in the village in 2013, according to the predictions of Philipson and Forster. Both said they expect the planning and permitting process to become more efficient.

"You'll be able to get permits online, I believe, by the end of the year," the mayor said.

The village's legal department, which has been run by the Coral Gables-based Weiss Serota law firm since 1998, will also be altered this year, Philipson predicted.

"I think there will probably be a different structure in the legal department," he said. "I can't define it now."

Forster said he hopes that structure will involve the hiring of an in-house attorney to replace Weiss Serota on day-to-day legal matters.

On the business front, Islamorada Chamber of Commerce President Rob Stober said he's expecting good things in 2013.

"Islamorada, I think, is on the upswing," he said.

The town calls itself the Sportfishing Capital of the World, but weddings are also big business here. And that's not going to abate, Stober said. The surging sport of paddle boarding will also entice tourists.

The chamber's 2,100-square-foot visitor center is scheduled for completion in May at the front of Founders Park. Stober said it should be good for the northern Islamorada business community, especially since the current visitor center is located on central Upper Matecumbe Key, miles beyond some of the attractions that motorists coming south from Miami would potentially visit.

"Having it further north will benefit Islamorada," Stober said. "Maybe it will lead to less u-turns by tourists south of mile marker 83."

This year is also likely to see the beginning of construction work at the long dormant mile marker 82.1, bayside, project known as The Islands.

"Our plan would be to build two out of 17 [homes] and see how it would go from there, so those would be specs," The Islands' Bill Fountain said.

Fountain said those homes are likely to be under way this year, but completed in 2014.

The Islands project was at the center of a much-publicized deal between the developers and the village in 2006, which led to the town acquiring the WetNet affordable housing site at mile marker 81.5.

The resulting 36-unit Wet-Net villas project is another development that will move forward over the next 12 months, with completion expected by year's end.

But with financing still tight, Fountain said he doubts there will be any construction boom in Islamorada this year.

"What I see mostly on the construction side of all this is people buying homes, renovating them and expanding them," he said.

Both Forster and Philipson said they didn't know what to expect about proposed Winn-Dixie and Publix markets in Islamorada, both of which were in a holding pattern at year's end.

"It all depends on the national economy," Philipson said. "Those are big national companies. The fiscal cliff could affect all development."

National economic problems aside, Philipson said he expects smooth times when it comes to the Islamorada budget in 2013. In 2012, the town passed a flat year-over-year budget with little wrangling.

But with housing prices rising again and the village having built up more than $3 million in unrestricted cash reserves, Forster said he'd like to see more than just the status quo next year. Among the budget items he believes the council should look at are the village's aging fire trucks and ambulances, as well as the salaries of village staff.

"I'm not talking about the top people. I'm talking about the middle and the bottom," he said.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre in Connect-icut, Philipson said it may be time for the Village Council to wade into the scarier waters of gun control.

"I don't know what we can do, but it's certainly worthy of future discussions," he said.

rsilk@keysnews.com

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