September 12, 2018

KEY LARGO — The northernmost island of the Florida Keys was largely spared by Hurricane Irma’s wrath, though businesses, lodging and parks were affected in varying degrees.

Some hotels and oceanfront restaurants were battered, but most businesses remained intact or bounced back quickly in the weeks following the hurricane.

“We were the first key ready to open right after the curfews were lifted,” Key Largo Chamber of Commerce President Elizabeth Moscynski said. “As a matter of fact, most of our businesses were ready to go much sooner than the Oct. 1, 2017, reopening of the Keys. We were the most fortunate of all the Keys.”

A year later, businesses reported to her that the past season started slow but picked up in March and April.

“Business fell flat during May and the first few weeks of June,” she said. “Moving on, July was great and August was fair. The true test will be the upcoming months. The off-season is upon the Keys now, and my concern is how the Upper Keys tourism businesses will do.”

As for lodging, Ocean Pointe Suites, an oceanfront resort in Tavernier, took a beating but saw the extensive damage as an opportunity to revamp the property. It finally reopened in April, bringing 170 rooms back online.

Baker’s Cay Resort, a bayside Hilton resort, expects to reopen in late fall with 200 rooms and 17,000 square feet of common areas. It had planned renovations ahead of the hurricane, which delayed its progress.

Work continues to progress at Bungalows Key Largo, which should be revealed later this year. The 11.2-acre property will be an all-inclusive resort with 135 individual units. The resort will also feature a full-service spa, gardens, two in-ground pools more than 1,000 feet of shoreline, and indoor and outdoor dining venues.

Tarpon Flats Inn & Marina, a small bed and breakfast resort with six rooms at the end of Transylvania Road, remains closed.

The county’s 8-acre Rowell’s Waterfront Park remained closed for 10 months after serving as a storage and processing site for vegetative debris and appliances after the Sept. 10 hurricane. After opening in July for about a month, the park closed again to serve as a temporary staging site for canal debris.

The expected timeline of its closure is unknown, but according to a statement from Monroe County spokeswoman Cammy Clark regarding the canal cleaning, it should be no more than seven to eight months to meet the federal grant funding conditions.

Key Largo resident Dan Jones, like others, is not happy about the park’s closure.

“There are two small piles of debris there, so the whole park has to shut down?” he questioned. “The county should let the people use the park with the exception of the debris area, which is staged closer to U.S. 1.”

Assistant County Administrator Kevin Wilson told the Free Press last month that he was of the opinion that Rowell’s time as a staging area could be briefer than staging areas in the Middle and Lower Keys.

“I will encourage them to get out of Rowell’s as soon as possible,” he said.

Crews are under a 220-day contract to clean up hurricane-related canal debris simultaneously in different locations throughout the island chain. Of the 103 canals, eight are in the Upper Keys, 23 in the Middle Keys and 72 in the hardest hit Lower Keys.

Unlike Harry Harris Park, which was designated for storage of abandoned vessels after the storm, Wilson doesn’t expect many boats to be among the debris housed at the park, though he acknowledged that any vessels found among the canal debris would be removed and might end up at Rowell’s.

As for Harry Harris Park, the boat ramp, beach area and basketball courts have reopened but the ballfields remain closed.

The picnic pavilions along the water will back in service shortly, according to Wilson, and the playground and perimeter fence contract has been awarded but await permits.

“First will be the playground, then the fence along adjoining properties and then on Beach Road,” he said.

“We’ve published a request for qualifications for design services for repairs and we’re looking at what’s needed to get the ballfields back in service, at least for daylight use, and should have a plan by later this week.”

Little League coaches describe the field “antiquated” and called for improvements to be made during repairs at the Monroe County Parks and Recs Advisory Committee meeting in July. Wilson said that any changes to the field layout would be subject to public input.

The county is shooting for the baseball fields to be useable by next baseball season, according to Wilson. The request additionally includes work to the boat ramp, repair work to Wilkinson’s Point and to install a new guard booth.