Florida Keys News
Thursday, July 10, 2014
New 'mini' cruise ship wants in

A Marco Island businessman wants to launch "mini" cruise ship tours to Key West, docking the vessel built to hold 90 passengers four nights a week at the historic seaport.

The Key West Escape is a 177-foot-long vessel outfitted with 40 cabins. It sleeps 80 but has room for an additional 10 passengers who would have to rent hotel rooms or stay with friends, said company president Jeff McDonald.

McDonald pitched the small cruise ship line in person Wednesday at Old City Hall, promising a lucrative infusion to the city's economy, particularly for restaurants.

"There's no free food," McDonald told the Bight Management Board on Wednesday evening at Old City Hall. "We're encouraging people who want to go in town and eat while they're here. People can enjoy Key West on a nice three-day adventure."

McDonald proposed two cruises a week from Marco Island, one docking Friday and leaving at 10 a.m. Sunday and the other arriving Monday afternoon and leaving Wednesday morning to make the 84-nautical-mile trip back.

The cruises could change, McDonald said, depending on how well the overnight trips do.

"We've got to get it up and running," he said.

The Bight board only discussed the proposal, which asks for a 5 to 10-year contract and offers to pay the city a $5-per-head disembarkment fee, along with all utility bills for the ship and a 10-cent per gallon fuel surcharge.

McDonald first approached city staff several months ago with the idea.

"We're always looking for additional revenue," said Doug Bradshaw, the city's port director. "We're hearing people want smaller cruise ships, more 'boutique' cruise ships. We thought it was worth listening to."

One of Key West's most skeptical critic of the cruise ship industry said Wednesday he welcomes the idea of a the much smaller vessel carrying tourists to the island for overnight stays.

"They're not going to be chewing up the channel and filling our streets," said Jolly Benson, chairman of the Key West Committee for Responsible Tourism, a political action group which last year led the effort that killed a referendum to order a federal study on the impacts of dredging the local harbour to better accommodate the larger cruise ships from lines like Carnival.

Various cruise ships deliver some 5,000 tourists to the Old Town streets on a single day, but the industry's newest vessels carry 4,300 passengers while measuring 1,110 feet in length and 127 feet wide.

Business leaders last year campaigned for an Army Corps of Engineers study on what would happen to Key West if the channel were widened, via dredging, to create a larger front door for the newest ships.

Voters on Oct. 1 turned out in droves to beat down the ballot question, 74 to 26 percent, with turnout at 41 percent.

Board members asked city staff to bring back a more detailed proposal and took no votes.

City commissioners would have the final say on the cruise line contract.

In a June 30 letter to city staff, Key West Escape offered to pay a dockage rate of $30 per foot, per month for use of the Ferry Terminal at the Key West Historic Seaport, with yearly increases pursuant to any rise in the Consumer Price Index.

"In theory it sounds great," said board member Jimmy Lane. "People overnight in the bight eating dinner and spending money."

Board member Jeremy Ashby added, "Using our fuel, too."

But the board's Harry Bowman said there several big unanswered questions, such as whether the cruise ship would pay the bed tax and whether it would take business away from existing charters.

Chris Belland, CEO of Historic Tours of America and Yankee Freedom III, said the Ferry Terminal might not have room for such a venture.

"I don't know how you'd jockey these boats around to make this work," Belland said. "We're concerned about having overnight guests. We have a security issue with our boat."


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