KEY WEST, Fla. — There is no better motto for this raucous southernmost point on the American map than “One Human Family.”
That family is a trove of unlikely characters who have somehow managed to merrily coexist here: pirates, bootleggers, treasure hunters, fishermen, scoundrels, writers, artists, musicians, bohemians, Bahamians, Cubans, gays, rummies — even a president (Harry S. Truman).
Missing from this list of inhabitants and sojourners is the cruise ship passenger, a category of visitor that has shaped modern Key West as much as the rest but remains unwelcomed by some and as polarizing as ever. Now, cruise ships and their day-tripping passengers are at the crux of a divisive debate over Key West’s identity and its path to the future.
Should Key West embrace its artsy, wealthier side and steer toward becoming a funkier version of Nantucket and the Hamptons? Or should it continue to stoke mass tourism, with its reliable stream of dollars but also its proliferating slogan-shouting T-shirt shops and trinket stores?
“I do recognize we need our cruise ships to help with the city budget,” said Tony Falcone, a store owner and Key West resident since the 1970s who is not a fan of the cruise ships. “But I want a balance. And I think the balance right now is leaning toward the cruise ship industry and away from the arts community.”
“We don’t want to be known as a town that has sold our soul to the cruise ship industry,” he added.
After much back and forth, the City Commission opted late this year to bow out of the politically treacherous decision and let voters take a first, tentative step toward deciding whether Key West will become an even bigger destination for cruise ships.
Residents will vote on a referendum next fall on whether to commission a three-year, $3 million feasibility study from the Army Corps of Engineers to analyze the pros and cons of widening the main channel that leads to Key West’s three ports. The channel sits inside an environmentally sensitive federal marine sanctuary, which means any dredging would require Congressional approval. All of this guarantees that a widened channel would not be completed for at least a decade.
Widening the channel is a necessary step in accommodating the industry’s latest and largest cruise ships, which require greater maneuverability to comfortably pull into Key West. If the channel is not widened, more of the larger ships will not stop in Key West. Larger ships run by Royal Caribbean Cruises already bypass Key West, a company spokeswoman said.
A drop in traffic would hurt the city’s economy, at least in the short term, particularly the slice of Key West that caters to ship passengers. Business owners predict that some shops would close, tour operators would suffer and even big-box stores that sell to the ship’s crew would take a hit. The city stands to lose jobs and at least $70 million in annual revenue and fees, cruise ship proponents say.
“There are a lot of people in this town who make a lot of money off of cruise ships,” said Mark Rossi, a city commissioner and owner of Rick’s and Durty Harry’s Entertainment Complex, which is on Duval Street, the town’s main drag, and does brisk business with passengers. “It’s a big boost to the economy.”
At the moment, 350 cruise ships stop in Key West each year, bringing about 837,000 passengers in 2011, a number that is expected to drop to 711,000 this year, according to a recent Chamber of Commerce presentation. Passengers spend an average of $84, chamber officials have said. On any given day, 1,900 to 6,000 passengers disembark, strolling over to Duval Street to eat, drink, take a trolley tour, visit the nearby sites and make purchases.
Some of these guests return to Key West for longer visits after those brief stops, business owners say.
But opponents are skeptical of the long-term benefits. They argue that dredging the channel would not only be expensive (about $36 million, according to the Army Corps of Engineers), but would also give rise to more cruise ship passengers, though the number is not expected to jump drastically.
Their fear, they add, is that larger ships would generate more ticky-tacky stores and party-hearty bars along Duval Street. This, in turn, would discourage visits from the kind of tourists who stay for days in high-priced hotels, spend more money and appreciate a more highbrow culture.
Many residents already lament that they steer clear of Duval Street, with its cruise ship crowd and copycat stores, because it is usually insufferable, a point that they say underscores an erosion of their quality of life.
In addition, expanding the channel has raised environmental concerns. It could disrupt endangered coral on an already diminished reef and disturb the water quality in the area, which is one of Key West’s most precious assets, environmental groups say.
For opponents of dredging, next fall’s referendum gives Key West an opportunity to swap mass tourism for a more select variety.
“The referendum opens up the whole cruise ship debate,” said John Martini, a prominent sculptor who has lived in Key West since the 1970s and has long disliked the cruise ship traffic and its consequences. “There’s already too many people. Period. People are elbow to elbow, and there are guys holding ‘Everything is $5’ signs. I think Key West can support itself with higher-end business.”
“All of this degrades the brand,” he added. “Duval Street has deteriorated, and it continues to deteriorate.”
But the debate is often unvarnished.
Cruise ship supporters say there is more than a whiff of snobbery to the opposition.
“There are comments that are a little intolerant about cruise ship people who come from Middle America and get sunburned — that doesn’t sound like ‘One Human Family’ to me,” said John Dolan-Heitlinger, who leads the Key West Seaport Alliance. “What are we going to do, ask people to show their tax returns?”
Mr. Martini sees it another way. Key West residents are stewards of the city, its legacy and the health of its shore.
“Key West is too important to sell to the lowest bidder,” he said. “And we’re selling it short, really selling it short.”
By Lizette Alvarez, The New York Times