Photo by Josie Koler
Images courtesy: Spottswood Companies, Inc.
The 24 acres of oceanfront property on the southwest side of Key West has gone through significant changes in the past 150 years.
The first major development was Fort Zachary Taylor which was built as an army installation in 1845 and then turned into a submarine base just before World War II. After the war, President Harry Truman used a home located on Whitehead Street for rest, poker, and to meet with cabinet members and foreign officials. He called the place “The Little White House” and when he was reelected in 1948, the area was named in his honor.
Recently, Robert Spottswood, president and director of Spottswood Companies, Inc., unveiled with his plans to develop the Truman Annex Waterfront. An area currently defined by two retired military vessels, the Eco-Discovery Center, and Fort Zachary Taylor.
The rest is cement.
The area is home to signature events all islanders eagerly anticipate like the Taste of Key West, and the Offshore World Championship Powerboat Races and the Key West 2010 International Regatta.
Other than that the Eco Discovery Center is juxtaposed against a sea of crumbling concrete splinted by weeds and decades of neglect.
Now the park is charged to one of Key West’s most reputable developers who envision a multi-purpose sports/entertainment/cultural complex projected to grow and sustain the tourism industry for generations to come.
Spottswood is working with the Monroe County Tourism Development Council, the City of Key West, even a Marathon non-profit to create a $35 million city-owned-and-operated park to be controlled by the public. According to Spottswood Companies, Inc., the cost of the Park as proposed is to be funded by a bond issue, which will be repaid using a portion of the Key West bed tax paid on hotel room stays in Key West.
In Spottswood’s plans include four major components: an amphitheatre, zoological park, a naval and maritime museum designed to attract luxury yachts. A deal has also been struck to bring a Turtle Hospital to Key West.
Ritchie and His Turtles
“We get down there a couple of times a week to pick up turtles, bring turtles back, and a big part of our mission is educating people and seeing people,” say The Turtle Hospital founder Ritchie Moretti.
Richie Moretti opened The Turtle Hospital in Marathon in 1986. Initially, only those staying at the motel were granted access to the infirmary, but after Hurricane Wilma (2005), Moretti opened the doors to the world, and watched visitors flood into the facility to learn more about the endangered species.
“We run the largest and more spectacular veterinarian turtle hospital in the world,” says Moretti. “We see between 35,000 and 40,000 people every year. People stop in to see the turtles, learn about the turtles, and how we treat the turtles. That’s how we fund The Turtle Hospital. $15 for adults and $7.50 for children.”
The visitors stay at local hotels and eat at the nearby restaurants cementing the Tourism Development Council’s drive to put “heads in beds.”
Mega Yachts = Mega Commerce
“There are more larger boats out there than ever in the 250’ to 300’ class,” Spottswood told the Chamber of Commerce earlier this week. “They’re good customers. Some of these slips will accommodate boats up to 550’ long, the smallest being 50’. This opens up a valuable segment of the cruising population, creating the possibility for a ferry terminal and the tourist revenues will add up. They buy a lot of fuel, and do a lot of shopping.” As a city owned property, Spottswood was very clear in his message that the Truman Annex Marina would not compete with Key West’s private marinas.
At Key West Harbour Yacht Club on the edge of Stock Island, the country’s closest marina to Cuba is hovering at a 50 percent occupancy rate this month.
Owner John Linstrom, who has two other clubs in Naples and Tampa isn’t worried or skeptical of the development of another marina and welcomes the idea of attracting the mega yachts.
“In the near future, the long term travel restrictions to travel to Cuba will be repealed and when that happens there won’t be enough boat slips in the Keys, especially the Lower Keys and Key West to accommodate everyone wanting to get through here. There’s going to be a greater demand then there will be supply and that situation will be permanent.”
According to Spottswood, the marina will provide the city with a funding mechanism without placing a tax burden on residents. The venue will also serve as the fairgrounds and headquarters for the power boat races, the marlin tournament, and the sailing regatta.
Development of the land into a beautiful city-owned park means locals and tourists won’t be trucking through, or riding golf carts across hot, steaming concrete to reach the temporary bleachers set-up for viewing a world-class event.
Key West Mayor Craig Cates, who is looking forward to a day when he can sit in the Truman Annex grandstand with his wife, children, and grandchildren is concerned about funding of the project and the precise involvement of the city.
“I would like to see the project completed at one time. It’s hard to piece everything together. It’s going to be so much money I don’t think they’re going to be able to get the bed tax money from the TDC. I like the idea of them doing the whole project at one time, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions. How much is going to cost the city to manage? What is the income going to be? Is the city going to have to subsidize the marina? What kind of controls will the city have over what goes on? They say the city is going to own the marina. The city is going to control it. But, nothing is in writing,” points out Mayor Cates.
Tourist Development Council Director Harold Wheeler says the development will not be paid for by the bed tax and that a Key West Turtle Museum is impermissible to the funding option, as well as the marina.
“The marina is for mega yachts,” he said, “and those people are going to stay on those yachts. They’re not going to stay in hotels.”
Wheeler did admit those traveling aboard mega yachts would be big spenders, even if they were only staying a day or two.
Meaning the marina would make money, and perhaps some boutiques on Duval Street, but confidence in securing dollars for the community as a whole through transient travelers to Cuba remains unseen.
Regardless, Linstrom implies, the marina will bring in groups of people who otherwise wouldn’t come to Key West, making a deal no one can loose in. He points out now that BP has an oil spill in the Gulf, the mega-yacht community is likely to remain unaffected. “The spill could have an impact on marine traffic and will certainly have a big impact on the fishing, and sports fishing, but not on the mega-yacht industry.”
Concerning Community Concerts
The other component, an amphitheatre, is also a tough investment in these tough times to sell to investors. Just ask Rodger Levering, food and beverage Director for Ocean Key Resort and Spa Sunset Pier. Back in 2007 he and general manager Matt Trahan rolled out an ambitious plan to take Sunset Pier to another level, a soundstage for major musical acts. The concert series has been remarkably successful and a favorite for locals, as for the Pier being packed, and the concerts attracting visitors from the mainland, where there are millions of possible ticketholders, remains questionable.
“Concerts in Key West is definitely a hard process to get going,” Levering attests. “In order for a concert series to be successful it needs TDC money, it needs something to supplement expenses, the expenses are just too much. Our highest selling show was 1,100 tickets. It’s such a small market. How many people are really going to pay to see music? I don’t know. You have to consider you are going to need TDC money to subsidize the artist’s fees, and an aggressive marketing plan.”
The amphitheatre would be a “permissible expense,” for tourism development dollars, or the bed tax claims Wheeler.
Norman Bedford, the promoter with SOS productions who helped the Noon Rotary Club bring the reggae sound of The Wailers to the Annex on Saturday, May 22 of this year, confesses concert ticket sales were “somewhat disappointing.” Ticket sales totaled 55 percent of projections.
Bedford, who oversees several markets in the state for a variety of concerts says Key West is hands-down the trickiest and most complex market to operate in.
“The problem is one of simple geography,” he states. “Touring bands need to basically connect the dots, going from one city to another on a daily basis in order to make money while on the road. Most of the time a band will travel for two to three hours to the next gig as it makes its way on a tour. In the case of Key West, you’ve come as far South as you possibly can—there is no ‘next gig’ that lines up logically. To complicate this, the next main market for a show is Miami/Ft. Lauderdale, and many of the bands that route down that low in Florida are simply too expensive to bring to Key West. Even if you sell out, you could possibly lose money. So as a result, you’ll have bands driving overnight some seven-plus hours to make it down to Key West, driving from their last gig in Tampa or Orlando. Once they play Key West, they have to then turn around and drive back up north through Florida. Many acts just pass on the idea.”
Adding to the frustration are lack of venues outside of local bars, the state of the national economy, and ticket prices in Key West are low compared to the state and other parts of the country.
On the positive side, Key West fans are recognized for being energetic and appreciative of great acts.
Another plus, points out Wheeler, because the grandstand would be open and situated on the water, the operational and maintenance costs would be low to the city. The city would be able to charge all costs to the promoter, ticket sellers, and maintenance people to clean up. Ample parking is another facet needing to be explored. He imagines not everyone will want to walk or bike to the amphitheatre. Other plans Spottswood has for the park include shuttle stops, a small restaurant, entrance at Southard Street, a ferry terminal, an entrance plaza with a fountain, large boardwalk, staging area, vehicular round-a-bout, native landscaping, and jogging trail.
“We need to make the Truman Annex look and feel like a great, open green space to create one of the great parks of the world,” Spottswood said to the Chamber of Commerce crowd, “owned and operated by the City of Key West. We need to enhance the success we’ve already built on and we can extend that to sailboat races and other events. This ensures we keep events here.”
Moretti, who employs ten to 12 professionals in the Middle Keys, is focused on creating new events for families around the world to come and enjoy, if the blueprints becomes a reality and he is given a piece of the land to build a state-of-the-art Key West Turtle Museum.
“All we need is oceanfront property. Ideally, we’d like to have 15,000 to 20,000 square feet between the Eco-Discovery Center and Fort Zacahary Taylor, connecting the beach to the facility. The last time I came with a turtle for a Mote Marine event at the Annex I saw over 1,000 people in one day! We can be more effective if we build something from scratch. Locals love it, visitors love it. People are interested in the environment. We can see more people, educate more people, help more turtles, and do more research. With a cruise ship dock on the other side of the park, we will see a lot more people.”
The funding of the Key West Turtle Hospital is not as much of a concern as the other components of the property; according to Moretti, the hospital will be funded by the federal, state, and county government. He has already been given assurances he will obtain the necessary dollars. Wheeler, who supports the project as a whole, has not supported the original plans to finance the Harry S. Truman Presidential Park with bond money. He has approached Spottswood about applying for capital projects funding. For planning, approval, and construction the timeline on the project is two to three years.
Robert Spottswood addresses a crowd of Key West Chamber of Commerce members during the last luncheon.
Members of the chamber filled the second floor conference room of the Marriott Beachside Hotel, a development of Spottswood Companies.