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Sunday, May 26, 2013
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TO ASK OR ASK NOT FOR STUDY: Benson says it would definitely lead to dredging

Today begins an occasional series profiling people behind the debate over widening the main shipping channel for cruise ships. Voters will be asked Oct. 1 to approve an official study on it, or nix the idea.

Jolly Benson and his 8-year-old American bulldog, Sweet Pea, can strike quite the laid-back Key West pose as they pal around the island, where both are known by name, at least at one trendy bar near Duval Street.

Benson, 31, a writer born and raised in Key West, smiles often and effortlessly shifts gears from explaining that one of his recent plays is about a cursed metrosexual zombie to recalling living in France for a couple years as a kid.

"I learned French," Benson said, admitting that it's not flawless enough to include swear words.

Then there was that extreme road trip in 2005 from Key West to Panama, in an Isuzu, with his mechanic friend Steve.

"We did have to fix stuff in Nicaragua," Benson said.

But when talk turns to the island's most divisive topic, the push to order a $3 million study on the various potential impacts of widening the main ship channel to more easily welcome cruise ships to Key West, the jokes stop flat.

Mention dredging, the Army Corps of Engineers and the vulnerability of "Cut B," the channel in question, and the fresh-faced, flip-flop-wearing Benson becomes a studied, confident spokesman for a movement.

"Environmentally we all know it's a disaster, regardless of mitigation," Benson said, nursing a pint of beer over a couple hours at The Porch, a Caroline Street bar. "It's only a study? No, it's a decision."

He is chairman of the Key West Committee for Responsible Tourism, the newly created political action committee (PAC) urging voters to fill in the "No" circle at the polls Oct. 1 beneath the question of whether the city should ask the Corps to deliver a full study on "widening" the channel.

The decision is binding to this present lineup of city commissioners, and only a majority is needed to pass it.

Benson has read the studies, the texts about the cruise industry and has an unwavering stance that any study ordered by Key West will lead to dredging of Cut B.

The opposition wants to dredge, Benson said, period. And that will rip up the coral bottom and further endanger the reef.

But his gregarious nature sets him apart from some environmental activists. He doesn't trash-talk opponents or smirk.

"Right now I'm happy to sit down with anybody," said Benson. "I've been on this for a few years. My job is to make sure they're not ill-informed."

The PAC's campaign kicks off in Key West fashion with an event 6 p.m. Friday at McConnell's Pub & Grill, 900 Duval St., complete with live music, T-shirts and at least a brief speech or two.

Benson didn't speak at the public lectern at Tuesday night's City Commission meeting, where the panel approved the ballot language by 5-2, nixing Commissioner Teri Johnston's motion to add "dredging" and "National Marine Sanctuary" to the paragraph. But outside, after the meeting, Benson approached two gadflies chatting and introduced himself.

"You sound angry," he said, and listened for a few minutes, although the topics at hand ranged widely between the two women, who it turned out were against the study anyway.

The Chamber of Commerce's argument that Key West, which typically takes in $2.5 million in revenue a year from cruise ships, would suffer economically if the channel isn't widened for the latest ships, doesn't compute for Benson.

The reef is what brings people to Key West, he said, noting the island's low unemployment rate.

"The ships that call on us will continue to call on us," Benson said.

"The Key West of old would never tolerate this," he said. "They would dismiss this and decidedly vote against the referendum. That won't change because people want to bring in a couple extra dollars."

Benson, whose older brother is flats guide Will Benson, an outspoken critic of the widening proposal, was tapped as the spokesman of the PAC after coming to the attention of Last Stand member Mark Songer.

"I'd been working with his brother," Songer said this week. "Will was going into fishing season and we knew he couldn't spend the time it requires. Jolly has a passion for the issue and was interested to help us out."

Having gotten to know Jolly Benson, Songer said he considers the young man one of Key West's future leaders, with the perfect profile in a town where so many "locals" have moved in as retirees, snowbirds or transplants.

"Jolly is not that person," said Songer. "He has gone to school here, grown up here and he knows the community. He's lived with the issues. From a young age, he's seen changes in town that has happened as tourism has evolved over the years."

The youngest of two sons, Benson's father is an electrical contractor who ran Benson Electric Technologies company for 33 years and his mother cooked for Gourmet magazine, testing recipes.

Benson, who has a bachelor's in English literature from the College of Charleston, S.C., proudly announces he doesn't have cable TV at his Old Town apartment and prefers to read.

A playwright who has written burlesque shows and a couple years back won the 24-hour writing contest, "One Night Stand," hosted by The Studios of Key West, he has also been on stage.

Benson has his own stage lighting business, setting up and running the board for the annual Key West Literary Seminar and local shows.

As for that first name -- "Jolly" is a family tradition of sorts from his mother's side, which hails from Massachusetts and has had several men christened Julian end up as Jollys.

Politics is in the blood, Benson added.

He said his family can trace its tree back to a Supreme Court justice and a gentleman who was instrumental in pulling off the Boston Tea Party.

With that last detail, the man named Jolly can't help but smile.

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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