Florida Keys News
Tuesday, December 31, 2013
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City took on cruise ships
Homeless issue won't go away; Nyad crossed the Florida Straits and set record

Island residents this year braved the changing layout of the North Roosevelt Boulevard reconstruction; grappled with the big-city homeless problem that culminated with Sheriff Rick Ramsay saying he looks forward to the day when the city's overnight shelter leaves his department's property; cheered swim champ Diana Nyad as she set a world record on Smathers Beach; elected Mayor Craig Cates to a third term; acclimated to a once-a-week garbage pickup and new big blue carts for recycling; on which the city spent $631,000; watched the longtime plan for an assisted living center at Truman Waterfront fail at the city commission; and dug deep to give money to two families raising young boys struck with cancer.

City Commissioner Tony Yaniz, in his first term as an elected official, all but filed paperwork to run for mayor, and very publicly campaigned for not Cates' competitor, Margaret Romero, but also for Vidal, the first-name only photographer who ran against Cheryl Cates, the mayor's wife, in the race for Utility Board.

Builder Tim Root would later win the Utility Board seat after a runoff with Vidal, who promised he would run again someday.

But the topic that dominated dinner conversations and social media posts was clearly the city's relationship with the cruise ship industry.

At issue: Should the city's leadership order a $3 million federal impact study on the results of dredging the main ship channel to better accommodate longer, modern cruise ships?

No way, voters said overwhelmingly, taking a stand that won out despite being outspent by those in favor of the channel dredging by almost 2-to-1.

But money didn't talk in this election as the pro-study side could garner just 1,630 votes, or 26 percent of the total.

The channel study vote fueled by a higher turnout than the one that decided the mayoral race, which incumbent Cates handily won over Romero, his repeat challenger.

Antistudy proponents touted the lopsided victory as a call for action for the city council.

"Their defeat cut across all sectors of the electorate," Arlo Haskell wrote in a post-election statement. "Absentee voters, early voters, and Election Day voters all voted overwhelmingly to block the chamber's expensive effort to sacrifice the Florida Keys environment in favor of lowest-common-denominator tourism."

Haskell led a movement to persuade the city commission to send a formal declaration of the referendum's 74 percent antidredging statement to higher levels of government as a way to put some teeth into decision of the voters.

Cates, who won a third term, reversed his position on the channel-dredging question in deference to the 74 percent vote against it. But not City Commissioner and Duval Street business owner Mark Rossi, who warned the public they would someday rue the decision when tourists stopped coming by sea.

Attorney Jennifer Hulse, a Key West Chamber of Commerce director who became a spokeswoman for the prostudy movement, spent months telling the public the Army Corps of Engineers study was only an information-gathering tool, not a signal to dredge.

Hulse pinned the cruise ship industry's economic impact on Key West at between $84 million and $90 million each year, as some 800,000 passengers land on the island annually.

"People misunderstood," Hulse said after the election results came in. "This is simply about a study -- not to dredge the channel."

The Key West Committee for Responsible Tourism loudly disagreed on this "just a study" argument, bringing in an Corps of Engineers official who announced that the ballot question most certainly could start the process toward dredging.

Environmental activists promised coral reef damage which could lead to a crumbling tourism base of those who come here for fishing and diving the only living coral reef in the continental U.S.

"The people have spoken loud and clear," Haskell said.

World record swim

The year also saw Key West become an international setting for a world record as 64-year-old swim champ Diana Nyad completed a 110-mile journey from Cuba to the Southernmost City.

On her fifth try, Nyad landed at Smathers Beach the afternoon of Labor Day, drawing several thousand fans waving iPhones, cameras and flags at the endurance athlete.

A month later, city leaders were considering building a monument to Nyad at the seaside spot where she made history.

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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