Florida Keys News
Wednesday, January 1, 2014
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Planning a park and dealing with roadwork

KEY LARGO -- Closing on the purchase of Rowell's Marina and hashing out its design and amenities are expected to be a major focus for the county in 2014.

County Mayor Sylvia Murphy, who represents the island, says that will be one of the biggest undertakings. The county will try to close on the $5 million purchase of the 8-acre bayfront property by Jan. 14 so it can apply for as much as $381,000 in funding from the Monroe County Tourist Development Council.

In addition to the TDC funding, the park could generate $244,000 a year in revenue through a restaurant, kayak and small sailboat rentals, concessions and by hosting special events there, according to County Administrator Roman Gastesi. Historically, there have been three special events held at Rowell's, generating $13,500 a year, he said.

The county could also generate money through renting out boat slips at the waterfront park. There is room for 25 slips, Gastesi said.

Other ideas for the property include a beach, but Murphy is leary about red tape. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would be responsible for reviewing the application and permitting any alteration to the shoreline. Murphy, for her part, said she wants to see a children's playground on the property.

Murphy also said she intends to focus on better services for the homeless in the new year.

"We have homeless children going to our schools and families living in vans," she said. "And I'm not talking about the drunks or drug addicts."

But for the most part, Murphy said she doesn't set out a list of goals for the year, but instead tackles problems as they arise.

For businesses on the island, the focus will be on watchdogging road construction projects, which have the potential to negatively impact merchants.

Craig Cope, who heads the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce, said Florida Department of Transportation road projects will continue throughout the year. The projects, though, will move to the southern end of the island. Business impacts can be expected between mile marker 97 and Tavernier Creek.

Despite those construction challenges, Cope said he is looking forward to the second Humphrey Bogart Film Festival, scheduled for the first week of May. Last year, the event garnered national attention and was attended by film critic Leonard Maltin and Bogart's son, Stephen.

For the Key Largo Fire-EMS District, 2014 could mean putting a year of strife behind it. The district taxes residents and uses the funds to pay for fire and ambulance services. The district cut ties with the Key Largo Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department last May and asked the Key Largo Ambulance Corps to take over service. One major problem still facing the district is that the former department owns the land on which Fire Station 25 sits. The district, though, owns the actual building, vehicles and most of the equipment.

Bob Thomas, chairman of the district, said he wants that resolved this year.

"We need to figure out the land deal," he said.

The district has been cautious about taking legal action, partly because going to court could cost thousands of dollars and expend political capital as well. The department has turned down the district's $1 offer to take the land. The district has also drawn up a lawsuit that asks a judge to take the former department's funds and give it to the newly-formed department. The filing of the lawsuit has been delayed while both parties attempt informal mediation.

In addition to the district's legal dispute, Thomas said he wants to see more involvement between the fire and ambulance departments and Coral Shores High School. Many of the volunteers for the departments come from Miami-Dade County and use the training and experience gained here to obtain paid jobs back on the mainland. Recruiting high school graduates is one way to help prevent the loss of personnel to out-of-town departments.

For the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District, the new year means beginning the installation of grinder pumps on about 140 properties. The construction has been delayed while the district works out an easement agreement with property owners.

The district also plans to continue lobbying for a state grant to pay down debt incurred by constructing the sewer system. Gov. Rick Scott has set aside $50 million for the Keys, but it appears he only wants the money to go toward shovel-ready projects. The wastewater district plans to lobby Scott's office to reconsider that position over the coming months. If approved by the Legislature, Key Largo could see as much as $17 million.

jgore@keysnews.com

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