Middle Keys city celebrates 15 years of autonomy
Before Marathon ever incorporated, there was 25 months of hard work that went from turning a vision into a functioning city. Residents involved in the process had many reasons for wanting to strike out on their own, but the most common held belief was that becoming a city would give the residents of the Keys more independence.
“Before incorporation, we were paying a Municipal Service Taxing Unit (MSTU) that was funneled into Monroe County’s general fund. Basically, the money was going to remodel Key West, and we didn’t get any benefit out of that,” said Karen Farley-Wilkinson.
While there were many involved in the incorporation push, eight residents took the lead. Farley-Wilkinson and her husband Bill, Mike Cinque, Karen Dennis, Bob Miller and three that have since passed on — Glenn Robinson, Dick Schultz and Alan Fletcher. The core group then created various committees served by more members of the Middle Keys community.
The first hurdle was convincing state legislators of the veracity of the community’s vision. Former state house representative Ken Sorenson was an easy sell. But state senator Daryl Jones was harder to convince.
“He got the idea from some county officials that we didn’t really want to incorporate,” Farley-Wilkinson said. “So we collected many, many letters — a stack — and started faxing his office. Finally he called and said, ‘Stop. I get the message.’”
What followed was a flurry of surveys; some to decide if the city was financially viable and many more trying to determine what citizens wanted in a new city. (The answer, Farley-Wilkinson said, was more parks.)
On Nov. 2, 1999, the residents of the Middle Keys turned out in force to cast a vote supporting the incorporation of Marathon — 1,812 voters said ‘yes,’ while 885 voters opposed the idea. (Key Largo held an incorporation vote on the same day. That motion failed. However, there was one good precedent — Islamorada incorporated in 1997.)
“We were also surveying to try to predict what the vote was going to be. Before the election, I thought that we might get 67 percent of the vote,” Farley-Wilkinson said.
For the first few years, Marathon had a “contract” style of government — a hired, out-of-town city manager and a few clerks. The first elections were held in 2000 and since then, 20 men and women have served on the Marathon City Council and eventually the city moved to a more standard from of government with in-house staffers.
And on the seventh day, Marathon created Sombrero Beach… well, not really. But it did engineer the switch from a county-owned parcel to a city-owned parcel.
“We did get into a huge community discussion about Sombrero Beach,” said former Marathon Councilman John Bartus. “Not a lot of people were in favor of us redeveloping the beach. We had quite a few contentious workshops at the high school.”
Bartus said that while the Sombrero Beach redevelopment was hard-fought battle, the resulting community consensus shows what the Middle Keys community is capable of when local talents come together for the common good.
“It’s been one of our biggest accomplishments,” said Bartus.
Former officials also consider the sewering of Marathon to be a major accomplishment. Again, there was much discussion about when and how to do it.
“I worried a lot about how we were going to pay for the construction,” Farley-Wilkinson said. “Mike [Cinque] finally won me over by arguing that we had to get ahead of everybody else if we wanted the opportunity to redevelop the city.”
THEN & NOW
A look at 15 years of change
Photos by LARRY BENVENUTI (vintage shots from 1999),
SARA MATTHIS AND CAITLIN CUNAGN