MARATHON -- Despite a few setbacks and continued vocal opposition from some quarters, Crane Point Museum and Nature Center officials aren't wavering in their efforts to build a zip line through the canopy of the 63-acre site.
Lynn Mapes, board member of the Florida Keys Land and Sea Trust, which operates Crane Point, says he and his colleagues are determined to complete the project in order to keep the preserve solvent.
"If people would stop getting in our way, we could do it," he said.
The trust's board first proposed the zip line, which it touts as an eco-canopy tour, in early 2011 as a way to reverse the ever-worsening financial situation of the facility, whose name honors former landowners Francis and Mary Crane.
The Land and Sea Trust operated at a deficit of $80,000 during the 2011 fiscal year, the most recent for which it has submitted records to the IRS.
At the time of the proposal, Crane Point officials said they hoped to have the $1.1-million zip line operational by early 2012. But a series of snafus has pushed the schedule back to late 2014.
The latest hang-up was a minor one. A hearing on the zip line before the Marathon Planning Commission was abruptly canceled on April 15 after an opponent pointed out that the signs Crane Point had posted advertising the hearing weren't as large as city code requires. A new hearing is scheduled for May 6 with an eye toward putting the zip line plan before the Marathon City Council on May 14.
Other delays have been more troublesome. Most notably, the city of Marathon agreed to submit an application for a $727,000 Florida Community Development Block Grant on behalf of Crane Point in September 2011. But the application they put in that fall was deemed insufficient by the state. Final approval of the grant by the state and the Marathon City Council didn't come until last October.
The delays haven't been without consequence. The Monroe County Commission in February denied a request from the Land and Sea Trust for a second extension of an $85,000 Tourist Development Council grant that was awarded in 2011. The trust plans to apply again with the TDC for funding during the 2014 fiscal year, Mapes said.
Opponents, who object to the zip line mainly on environmental grounds, have sought to use the snafus as openings to derail the project.
On March 20, three leading critics gained a meeting with the Land and Sea Trust board to pitch alternative ways to make Crane Point solvent. Aside from the 40 acres of hardwood hammock and the 16 acres of mangrove and transitional zones that are protected at Crane Point, the site also houses the Marathon Wild Bird Center, the 1902 Adderley House, which is the Keys' oldest home outside of Key West, a natural history museum and hiking trails.
Opponents, many of them former Land and Sea Trust members, view the zip line as intrusive and not in accord with the site's mission of conservation. Plans call for the zip line to stretch half a mile. It would include nine towers covering areas that would add up to as much 12,000 square feet.
Critics also site concerns that the project would be detrimental to the threatened white-crowned pigeons that frequent the property, including statements to that affect from scientist Kenneth Meyer, who is the executive director of the Avian Research and Conservation Institute.
In contrast, an environmental assessment conducted by local biologist Phi Frank and commissioned by the Land and Sea Trust as part of its site plan application, says the zip line would have a "negligible" impact on the pigeons. In its project application, the Land and Sea Trust states that construction of the zip line would impact no more than 0.2 percent of the overall preserve.
The finances of the project have also been a subject of debate. The $727,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds are contingent upon Marathon being able to show the state that the zip line would create 21 jobs. For each job that does not materialize, the city is on the hook for $35,000, though a letter of credit Crane Point secured from IberiaBank would cover the city's exposure for the first four jobs that aren't created.
IberiaBank extended Crane Point a $300,000 line of credit in late 2011 when Jeffrey Smith, who chairs the Land and Sea Trust Board, was a senior vice president at the company's Marathon branch. Smith has since moved over to First State Bank in Marathon.
In calculating staffing levels at the zip line, the Land and Sea Trust estimated that the attraction would bring in 23,500 people by its second year of operation. One percent of Keys visitors would pay admission to the facility, according to the estimate.
Skeptics, including David Rice, Marathon's representative on the Monroe County Commission, doubt that assumption.
"I don't think that is going to be the case," he said last week.
But others, including the leadership of the Greater Marathon Chamber of Commerce, are less circumspect. Chamber CEO Daniel Samess said Crane Point spoke with existing zip line facilities in order to compile their estimates.
"I think they are using good, real-world data to come up with their numbers," he said.
At the March 20 meeting, Land and Sea Trust Board members met with zip line opponents Joan Borel, Joyce Newman and Deb Curley. Attendees on both sides say the meeting was amicable, even if it didn't fundamentally change the discussion.
"Their attitude is that they have put a lot into the zip line and they believe it is still viable," Borel, a founding member of the trust, said of the current board members. "But they have also expressed an openness to other alternatives."
Borel said among the alternatives she, Newman and Curley proposed was the formation of a partnership between the Land and Sea Trust and another local nonprofit, such as the Turtle Hospital or the Pigeon Key Foundation. Other ideas included hosting children's environmental camps, opening up Crane Point to high-end camping and leasing a portion of the site as a venue for Florida International University or Florida Keys Community College.
The proposal that Borel is most enthusiastic about, however, would bring the County Commission into the equation. She'd like the commission to support the acquisition of Crane Point's natural areas by the Monroe County Land Authority, which, among other tasks, is charged with protecting native Keys habitat.
Under Borel's concept, the Land and Sea Trust would still operate the visitor facilities at Crane Point using an endowment set aside with funds from the land authority's purchase of the remainder of the site.
Borel's idea has the ear of Rice.
"It's among the list of things that could happen," said Rice, who added that overall he hasn't heard many viable ideas from those who oppose the zip line. "The last thing I want to see is that land lost somehow."
But Rice also said that a Land Authority purchase of the Crane Point site would be only a short-term fix unless the Land and Sea Trust could find a way to break even on the operational end.
A secondary option, he said, would be for the county to purchase the property outright and operate it through the regional park system using property tax dollars.
But for now, Rice said, such talk is moot, since Crane Point management isn't looking at such options.
"We can't buy it because they aren't selling it," he said.
Indeed, said Mapes, the idea of betting the future of Crane Point on the political mechanisms of the County Commission is a risk he's not ready to take. As for the other ideas that were presented on March 20, he said they've all previously been considered, but they won't work financially
Mapes said he was once skeptical of the zip line concept. But after four years of study, and with the $727,000 grant secured, he's now convinced it will be a success.
"The consensus after all of that vetting process is that everyone on the board is very much behind the eco-canopy tour," he said.