More than 200 people gathered in the Upper Keys Thursday evening to celebrate the opening of what some called "the missing piece" in Islamorada's tourism industry.
The long-awaited Florida Keys Convention Center at the Islander Resort can accommodate 200 people for an indoor, sit-down dinner event, and hundreds more on its outdoor patio and surrounding lawn, developer George Hertel said of the two-story facility that also will house a museum and discovery center.
"This is what we needed more than anything in the world," said Judy Hull, executive director of the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce. "The chamber has been actively pursuing group tourism and convention travelers, and this is the missing piece we needed."
Islander Resort owner David Curry hosted the grand opening celebration and said he was happy to be able to incorporate the new convention center into the Upper Keys resort he has owned for about 12 years.
"This gives us a meeting facility that Islamorada didn't have before," Curry said.
The convention center will host a Habitat for Humanity fundraiser on March 3 that will be many community members' first glimpse inside the new center.
Curry owns several other hotels throughout the nation, including the DoubleTree Grand Key Resort in Key West. The Islander Resort is not a member of the DoubleTree or Hilton family of hotels, but has remained independent.
Its trademark Islander sign, with its 50s style lettering, that attracts attention on U.S. 1 at Mile Marker 82 has been designated a historical landmark and will always remain as a beacon of Florida Keys nostalgia, Hertel said.
"This is a beautiful facility, and is something that was certainly needed here," said Monroe County Commissioner David Rice, gesturing from the second-floor balcony, where grand opening attendees were enjoying rum and cigars, to the sweeping patio and lawn below.
The details of the museum facility still are being finalized, Hertel said, adding that it will encompass natural history, historical education and maritime exhibits.
"We're taking a broader view of the original intent," which was to encompass artifacts and exhibits from Upper Keys archaeologist Irving Eyster of the Matecumbe Historical Trust, Hertel said.
He said an announcement will be made soon about the specifics of the Florida Keys Discovery Center and Theater, which will have its own board of directors and could include exhibits from the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation NOVA Southeastern University Oceanographic Center and the International Game Fish Association.
"We want this thing to be around for 100 years, and in addition to an educational aspect, we want to make it interactive and entertaining," Hertel said.
The facility was built with state-of-the-art fiber optic technology.
During the grand opening gala Thursday night, the discovery center portion of the facility was filled with artistic exhibits from the Morada Way Arts Council, which presents a monthly arts walk in Islamorada and offers art classes at its headquarters.