Key West voters will approve the Oct. 1 referendum asking if the city should order a federal study on the impacts of dredging the main ship channel in order to accommodate modern cruise ships, a pro-study proponent said Wednesday.
"The community is going to see the light on this; we're going to have a 'yes' vote," said attorney Jennifer Hulse, vice president of the Greater Key West Chamber of Commerce Political Action Committee (PAC).
"We're going to make sure this study happens if the vote is 'yes.' It matters to the businesses and it matter to our members."
Hulse was among three speakers invited to a forum put together by Commissioner Tony Yaniz and held in Key West High School's auditorium, .
Hulse was joined on the stage by the anti-study movement's appointed spokesman, Jolly Benson, a playwright who has a theater lighting company, and John Dolan-Heitlinger, a veteran paid consultant representing the pro-dredge camp, the Key West Seaport Alliance.
While the forum drew only about 27 people, the banter among the three participants packed a wallop.
Benson, the only anti-study voice on stage, kept on point with the message from environmental group Last Stand: The study will lead to dredging an already fragile, recovering reef that is Key West's most precious tourist attraction.
"Ripping out 17 acres of sensitive bay bottom and putting it somewhere else, to me, is not an improvement," said Benson, chairman of the Key West Committee for Responsible Tourism PAC.
As for the $23 million worth of coral reef mitigation work the pro-dredge camp has bandied about in ads, Benson said lots of that would go toward mapping out the bay bottom, not planting coral.
Early voting in Key West opened Monday and runs through Sept. 28, and the channel-dredging study question has dominated this city election season.
The Chamber's PAC has raised $84,000 and spent $57,000 since March, while the Responsible Tourism PAC has collected $74,000 and spent $36,200 during the same period.
When moderator Bill Becker, US-1 Radio news editor, asked the attendees if anyone hadn't yet decided how to vote Oct. 1 on the question, not a hand went up.
Dredging the main shipping channel is part of maintaining a port economy, said Hulse.
"We've got a channel that's outdated, to be honest with you," she said. "If we're going to be a port community, it's about the port. Nobody wants to harm the environment. The reality is, we're a shipping community. We're a tourism community. Cruise ships drive overall tourism."
Hulse went further, saying dredging the silt out of the bottom could benefit the local environment.
"We need to have a safe, navigable, deep, wide channel," Hulse said. "If it were me, why not deepen the channel and reduce turbidity?"
Benson's group, she said, just doesn't want cruise ships or passengers on the island.
"Even when there's going to be an environmental gain, you don't care," Hulse said to Benson.
"I still don't want them to destroy the environment," Benson replied. "I'm considering that this is actually the problem."
"You don't understand the difference between the study and the dredging," Hulse countered.
Benson made mention of the few businesses dumping big donations into the Chamber PAC's coffers, saying that short list would benefit the most from dredging.
"That is not true -- don't lie," Hulse said. "What percentage of your cause doesn't even live here?"
She pointed out several of the Responsible Tourism's PAC donors are "independently wealthy."
"And we're the greedy people?" Hulse asked.
Cruise ships will always come to Key West, Benson said, adding that plenty of local business owners don't want a $3 million Army Corps of Engineers study on the pros and cons of dredging.
"We have well over 50 businesses that signed on voluntarily," said Benson. "I've had double that number come up and say, 'We're afraid of the repercussions if we support you publicly.' I'm the most pro-business person around. I still wear Kino sandals, even though I have to fight the crowds to get in."