Florida Keys News
Friday, August 1, 2014
Marco Island cruise wins first approval

The Bight Management District Board on Thursday agreed 3-1 to welcome an overnight 88-passenger cruise ship that sails from Marco Island twice a week, despite competitors' questions about whether the city's port has enough room for another boat.

City commissioners will have the final say over any contract with Key West Great Escape, a 177-foot-long vessel with 40 cabins that a Marco Island man says will pump plenty of tourism dollars into Key West since the cruise serves no meals.

The cruise line has pledged to be flexible with scheduling so as not to disrupt the docking of the existing ferry and the Yankee Freedom III at the bight, said Port Director Doug Bradshaw.

"It will not affect existing tenants," Bradshaw said Thursday. "They'll be able to come and go exactly as today."

Bradshaw called the cruise ship proposal a good revenue source for the city.

Jeff McDonald, the cruise company president, told the board that the vessel is in Rhode Island awaiting purchase and a complete renovation, including fresh engines.

"The engines will be good for 30,000 hours, probably 10 years," McDonald said. "I'm trying to make this operational by November to catch a good winter crowd. I've got to go up and get the engines remanned, bring it down from Rhode Island and get it in here."

Harry Bowman was the lone dissenter on the dais Thursday at Old City Hall, saying there were too many unanswered questions about how the addition of an overnight cruise ship would affect the ferry terminal's clients, including the Key West Express.

"I don't think the Bight's ready for it," Bowman said. "I don't think we can truly accommodate it until you get more dock space and these issues resolved."

Also, Bowman questioned the wisdom of granting the cruise line a 5- to 10-year lease, as the company has requested.

Before the vote, attorney Ginny Stones told the panel her clients, the Express ferry that shuttles travelers daily from Key West to Marco Island and Fort Myers during the winter season, have "serious concerns" about the small cruise ship proposal.

But the rest of the board members present -- Steve Henson, Jimmy Lane and Dan Probert -- voted in favor of the proposal.

McDonald sweetened his original June 30 offer by raising the passenger disembarkation fee from $5 to $15 per head, and added an offer to pay half of any upgrades to the port's electric power.

The cruise company says it will pay for all utilities used and add 25 cents per gallon to all fuel purchased from the city.

"What's being proposed is essentially a floating hotel at Key West Bight," Stones said. "It would be a three-day, two-night stay with lodging accommodations."

Stones questioned whether the city's ordinances and land-use rules even allow such a thing, and warned that approving the overnight cruise could "open a lot of doors," such as the arrival of R.V. parks or a Greyhound bus parking overnight.

The city's laws allow for the Marco Island cruise, Assistant City Attorney Larry Erskine said, quoting City Planner Don Craig.

The Key West Great Escape cruise, however, won't exist until commissioners approve it.

"You don't buy a ship unless you've got a place for it to go," McDonald said. "We will not purchase the boat until Key West gives us approval."


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